Lyrical Flashes in Fiction

Partly because I write poetry in addition to fiction, I often feel an urge toward lyricism and figurative language, and I consider the lyrical moment a part of my voice as a writer. But whether in fiction or poetry, similes and metaphors must be true to the speaker. Now, I have a distaste for omniscient narrators in my fiction, so there the speaker, it’s safe to say, is never me. The poeticisms that come to my mind may therefore not align with those that might come to the minds of my characters, so one challenge then becomes how to endow other, different voices with my own lyrical intuitions.

When working with lyricism, as with all writing, one must choose words carefully, since every simile and metaphor directly or indirectly says something about the speaker. “Dorothy chopped the carrots into little orange coins” describes meticulousness, and might imply someone conscious about money. It reveals a very different character mood and personality than “Dorothy chopped the carrots like rat’s tails,” which describes aggression, and conveys disdain for beings considered lower than oneself. Still a third character would be illuminated by “Dorothy chopped the carrots like a stylist would cut hair.” This describes a perhaps artful care, in which the object of the action is noticed. There is nothing perfunctory, resentful, or distracted here. It implies Dorothy is completely conscious of herself and her surroundings.

To help choose appropriately, I try to make my lyrical moments informed, or partly determined by a larger knowledge base about the character’s mood, personality, and situation. But sometimes, if they feel right when written on impulse, they teach me something about the character, and what they reveal then becomes new knowledge which deepens the character and so enriches the story. Either case achieves the goal of keeping the poetic language true to the speaker’s voice.

What’s more, I often find that when all of a character’s poeticisms are true to them, unifying themes sometimes arise. Say we choose the last of the above examples, and that in addition to cutting carrots like a hairstylist, in a different scene “Dorothy watched the lines in the road flash by in silence, like faraway lightning.” What do the two similes have in common? Her awareness, her way of noticing the world, naturally, but more so that this very attention to her environment has weight. Likening the road lines to faraway lightning to me suggests contemplation. Dorothy deeply involves herself in everything she does. She takes no action unconsidered. She values purpose and direction.

This can now become a major part of her character, and of the story. Other lyrical moments can be adjusted to reflect this so that as a whole the poeticisms unite to strengthen both the themes and also the characters in the story. If the lyric flashes amidst the prose thus serve not one but two important functions, I can avoid the trap of using poetic language solely for the sake of itself. Whenever I use a simile or metaphor merely to prettify the words, essentially showing off, I always end up having to cut it in revisions, because it fails to add anything worthwhile. But if I can make such language serve the story in multiple ways, my hunger for using the poetic in fiction can in the end lead to a more deeply explored work.

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1 Comment

  1. Elise C Dunham said,

    June 3, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Nicely put. I guess when in school, most of us tried to add extra words to bulk up the assignment, hence the metaphors and similes that add essentially nothing I like the idea you put forth about the lyricisms coming spontaneously. The story and characters take on a life of their own. You present a nice balance between spontaneity and well-thought out words.


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