Writing Exercise: The Lyrical Story

The problem with trying to write a Lyrical story is a problem of subtlety: the WAY in which the central image symbolises or represents some wider truth, or hope or expression, CANNOT BE OBVIOUS.

Obvious symbols don't work. The kind of symbols that the reader can decode and understand instantly (a brick represents a house, a bird represents a thought, a toss of the coin represents fate, etc, etc) - these obvious symbols leave the reader with nothing more to do. "I get it," they say, and suddenly there's nothing more for them to do. They become redundant. The text loses them.

Instead, there has to be an outward LACK of logic to the symbol - it has to be hard for the reader to understand how or why the symbol represents what it does. "I don't get it," they need to be saying.

However, the symbol does still need to connect to the thing it's illuminating or representing, and it needs to be right, perfect in the way it does it. But the reader (and indeed the writer) must not be able to say exactly WHY it's perfect or HOW it connects. This needs to be illogical and unexpected, but 'somehow right'.

Also, the symbol, though externally illogical (out of place, etc) has to have an internal logic. It needs to be calm, and self-assured. It needs to 'throb' (almost), and glow and generally be very, very sure of itself. Despite being slightly odd, slightly out-of-place. Slightly strange.

Not asking much are we? 

The key to unpicking it lies in the above aside '(and indeed the writer)'. Readers are smarter than writers. That, if anything, is Comma's central motto. Our reading intelligence is collective, instinctive, hardwired and ancient. As Robert Mackee puts it, when we all shuffle into a cinema and get ready to watch a film (or for that matter start to read a book) our collective intelligence leaps. Our narrative-brain is genius-like. Everybody gets it. 

Always bear this simple fact in mind. The reader is as smart as you (smarter even), the reader will catch up with you, sniff out what you're doing, get your number. That's why, you have to pull off some of the hardest tricks in literature, you have to almost NOT be able to work them out yourself. Not play dumb, but the opposite: play to the super-smart reader.

Instead of trying to think 'What might be a good symbol for X?', that is to say, instead of trying to fox it out like a writer, be a reader. Trawl through your own memory or knowledge or reading around a subject... and look out for something in it that you as a reader can't work out or resolve... Look for something that niggles, that stands out, that doesn't fit...


Firstly, think of 10 images - random, odd, unconnected, self-assured, out-of-place, independent. Just strong vivid images on their own.

Allow them to be slightly silly or rubbish in places. Don't try and explain them. Let them find you.

The important thing is that there are 10 of them. (Even better, make it 20! :)).

Then, pull back the camera and see if they need any kind of setting (location or time or context). If they INSIST on a setting, then describe it, fill in the detail. If they INSIST upon a certain type of character looking at them, encountering them in some way, then pull the camera back some more.

Compiling this 'list of annoying, niggling images' may take some time.

Pulling back the camera may take some time (with each of them).

It must be done this way round. 


This has to be done on a completely separate day, in a different mood, using a different part of your brain.

Think of a character who isn't able to express something, or communicate something, for one reason or another.

Make the reason for him/her not being to express it NOT obvious and not compulsory - another ambiguity/mystery. Don't make it a compelling reason (i.e. a medical inability), make it seemingly voluntary. 

Then, as before, pull back the camera.

Then ONLY if you're NOT thinking about the previous exercise AT ALL, some connection MAY.... if you're exceedingly lucky suggest itself. Only if you've done all of these steps in the right order, fully, and only if you're extremely lucky.

Then combine the two - seamlessly. The person who can't express something + the ultimate 'lyric' symbol that beams out meaning, on behalf of the person who can't express the thing they want to. 

Revise and edit down. And see what happens.

Good luck...