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I've been thinking about this question for a while. This is my definition of what makes a sentence lyrical:

1. The use of metaphors:

So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane. ― John Green, Looking for Alaska

2. The use of words related to nature:

"When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up toward me. A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds." ― Haruki Murakami Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

3. The use of rhythm (alternating short sentences with long sentences):

"Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn't give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again."

I would like to hear other definitions, or to know whether I'm mistaken.

  • I think this is a good moment to use Google. Search for "lyric novel". Others explain this better than I can. (Not to be confused with prose poetry. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prose_poetry). – user5645 Apr 12 '15 at 20:58
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Lyrical refers to song-like qualities. Songs are inherently emotive and use rhythm and sound to convey a sense beyond the literal. The rhythmic aspect includes not merely higher-level structure but also accentuation, syllabic pacing, repetition of sound patterns, and other mechanisms. Songs generally have a compression and a subtlety of expression that is not typical of ordinary prose. The use of imagery accomplishes both subtlety and compression. Other forms of indirect expression can also provide a lyrical quality, perhaps primarily from subtly which can intensify the emotive effect. (The use of subtly might be similar to telling a joke; the lead up disguises the punchline and the punchline by itself is generally not funny but with the whole there is a powerful reaction.)

One might even argue that "show don't tell" is a step in the lyrical direction.

Natural images are not essential to lyrical expression, though they have the benefit of being broadly appreciated and having nearly an intrinsic emotive quality.

  • Great answer! Rhythm is quite important in comedy, even in comic structures that don't seem to be rhythm based, "timing" is still critical. – DukeZhou Aug 7 '17 at 20:33
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    -1 Actually, no, lyrical does not mean song-like. It means "expressing the writer's emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way" (en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/lyrical) Its synonyms are: expressive, emotional, deeply felt, personal, subjective, passionate. All this may be achieved with rhythm and other song-like qualities, but that is not what the word means. You can be lyric without being rhythmic. – user16226 Aug 7 '17 at 21:10
  • @MarkBaker "suitable for singing, as to the accompaniment of a lyre; songlike; specifically, designating poetry or a poem expressing the poet's personal emotion or sentiment rather than telling of external events: sonnets, elegies, odes, hymns, etc. are lyric poems" (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe 2nd edition) or "The word lyric claims its emotional place in music and poetry, with the words to a song being called the lyrics, while A lyric poem is one steeped in personal emotions, making it song-like." – Paul A. Clayton Aug 8 '17 at 12:00
  • It is difficult for me to imagine writing which is powerfully emotive without using rhythm as part of the communication of emotion. Note: my use of "rhythm" does not denote meter but a more general pacing and patterning. One does not express excitement with monosyllabic monotonal phrasing (though such is an appropriate rhythm for expressing boredom). – Paul A. Clayton Aug 8 '17 at 12:00
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    'Songs are inherently emotive ' Genuine question, how so? the wheels on the bus go round and round, not causing me to emote, I'm very good at integral and differential calculus; I know the scientific names of being animalculous: In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General. What's the emotion? – Spagirl Aug 8 '17 at 16:45
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The word lyrical does not mean "like a song lyric". If anything the derivation probably goes the other way. Lyrical means expressing the writer's emotions in a beautiful or imaginative way. Thus you can have poetry that is lyrical and poetry that is not lyrical. You can have prose that is lyrical but not rhythmic, and prose that is rhythmic but not lyrical. (I have been arguing with my editor recently about sentence rhythm in my forthcoming technical book. The prose in that book is a rhythmic as I can reasonably make it, but no part of it is in any way lyrical.)

Of course, in expressing your emotions in beautiful and imaginative language you may very well use metaphors, make references to nature, and use rhythm. Then again you could do all of these things in a biology textbook that was not lyrical at all.

Finally, alternating short and long sentences is not rhythm. Rhythm has to do with where stresses fall in a sentence. Prose rhythm, at least as I think of it, has to do with how the natural stresses in a sentence support the meaning of that sentence. Thus:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender

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This is merely meant to support Paul A. Clayton's excellent answer.

  • What unifies the three examples you've presented is the impeccable rhythm (meter) of the prose.

As Paul Clayton notes, prose lyricism can extend to poetic techniques (sound patterns) such as alliteration, internal rhymes and near rhymes, among others.

If you're not familiar with it already, you may be interested in Eliot's Four Quartets. The bulk of the poem is written in natural, modern English, rendered poetry not by rhyme, but by the rhythmic structure. (One of the implications of this modern poem is that rhythm is the fundamental trait of poetry, over and above rhyme or even meaning.)

Similarly, lyricism in prose writing is primarily a factor of impeccable metric structure which results in perfect "flow" for the reader.

Poetic imagery may be applied for the reasons Clayton mentions.

A clue as to the use of "lyric" can be found in the etymology. The word derives from the Ancient Greek musical instrument known as the lyre. Erato is the muse of lyric poetry, although in later accounts, Euterpe was also associated with this form.

  • Lyric refers to the musical qualities of language

This is to say the metric and phonetic (auditory) qualities that elevate common prose to lyrical prose.


PS- With the Green quote, that has the feeling of a short poem nested in a prose narrative because of the rhyme. Typically one would avoid overt rhymes in line endings in lyrical prose to distinguish it from poetry (or even doggerel), but Green's use demonstrates how it can be skillfully utilized for effect.

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I usually think of writing "lyrical" prose like writing poetry that begs to be set to music. If you read it back and get that veague sense of intaggible emotional feel you do with a song, then you might just have "lyrical" prose. However, if you've ever read song lyrics you'll know that some lyrics sound amazing when you hear them in the context of the song but are laughable read without music. When you're writing "lyrical" prose, the thing is that you want it to be veaguely similar to the type of writing that can be set to music (song lyrics) but it won't be set to music so it should be lyrical (like lyrics) and not actual lyrics.

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