Writing Novels in Verse
Hey there, writers! Thanks for stopping by. Today I’m going to share some tips and techniques for writing in verse — things I’ve learned along the way that I hope might be helpful for others.
Verse novels, of course, have to be both verse-y and novel-y. (I know… go figure.) Here’s what this really means:
Verse novels combine the music and imagery of poetry
with the plot and character development of a novel.
Music + imagery + plot + characters = a lot to think about! So many things to consider, and so many choices. One thing that makes writing in verse both fun and challenging is how much room there is to play with structure and language — fun because freedom! playtime! whee!! and challenging because with every one of those choices you’re aiming to enrich the story, deepen the emotional impact, and select the very best way to connect with your potential readers. It can seem a bit daunting.
I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of a photo album:
Imagine the story in pictures.
Whether you’re planning or pantsing it, try imagining your story being told through the pictures in a photo album. Each poem in your novel is a snapshot, a scene, a piece of the narrative — something that moves the story forward plot-wise or character-wise. Together, the snapshots tell the story.
The individual “photos” may be abstract or realistic, long or short, stark or soft-focused, wide-angle or cropped close. They might even tell two interconnected stories, and they might not be in chronological order. (See?! Choices!)
But here’s the key:
However you present them, the poems must tell a story.
If one of your gorgeous photos — a.k.a. finely-crafted poems — doesn’t advance the plot or further character-development, the poem goes. Yup, sorry to tell you, but kill your darlings applies in verse novels too.
You’ll likely find that some stories lend themselves to verse more than others. That perhaps is a topic for another day, or this post will get waaay long. So let’s assume you’ve already recognized the story you need to tell wants to be told in verse. Let’s look, then, at some of the choices you’ll get to consider when writing your verse novel.
1. General Structure
- Free verse. My first verse novel was written all in free verse, and based on the verse novels I’ve read, I’d say this is the most common structure. But it’s by no means the only option!
- Formal structure. Some authors use a variety of poetic forms, each chosen intentionally. For each poem, consider choosing a form that will reflect the character’s situation or emotions, thereby creating greater impact on the reader. (In Carolee Dean’s FORGET ME NOT, the use of a pantoum, with its repeated circling-back lines, helps convey a sense of being stuck; and in YOUR OWN, SLYVIA, author Stephanie Hemphill mirrors the format of several of Plath’s poems.)
- A combination of formal and free verse.
- A combination of prose and verse. (Lisa Schroeder’s THE BRIDGE FROM ME TO YOU has two viewpoints, one in prose & one in verse.)
- Single POV.
- Dual or multi POV. (Laura Shovan’s THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY uses multiple viewpoints — eighteen! — one for each student in that 5th grade class; Lucy Frank’s TWO GIRLS STARING AT THE CEILING has 2 POV characters, each with their own side of the page to reflect that they’re sharing a hospital room with a curtain in between them; and Leslea Newman’s OCTOBER MOURNING has multiple POV including that of a particular fence post — many layers are added to the story via these POV, giving it greater resonance and poignancy.)
- 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. Verse novels are often written in close 1st person, which helps make them intimate and accessible, but there are times when 1st doesn’t serve the story best. Just like with prose, choose whatever’s right for the story.
3. Language Choices
- Imagery and figurative language (metaphor, simile, allusion, etc.). Imagery that’s organic to the character/story can really ramp up the emotional impact; the image often evokes the emotion more effectively than any action or “telling”. (In Katherine Applegate’s HOME OF THE BRAVE, Kek, a Sudanese refugee in the U.S., visits a grocery store for the first time and sees “rows and rows of color, of light, of easy hope” and “answers to prayers on every shelf” (p.156). This tells us so much more about Kek than simply saying he sees more food than he’s ever seen before — and I’ve never looked at a grocery store quite the same since reading that!)
- Musicality (the sound of the words). Be very intentional with word choices and arrangement to create the sound, rhythm, and tone/mood that you want. Line breaks impact musicality too, in that they affect pacing and natural pauses. Read your poems aloud! (Sharon Creech’s HEARTBEAT, about a girl who loves to run, makes great use of rhythm & repetition — see “Footfalls”, p.1.)
- Economy of words. Trim excess. Consider the power of what’s left unsaid. When each word is chosen with purpose, verse can really cut to the heart of the story, ramping up the impact of the emotions and theme. (In Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST, the spare language reflects the stark Dust Bowl setting.)
- Dialogue structure/format. It’s up to you how you choose to convey dialogue (quotes? indents? italics?), but be consistent. A confused reader is not a happy reader!
- Punctuation and capitalization. You have “stylistic freedom” here, of course, but try to be consistent throughout the novel.
- Poem titles. You may or may not title your poems — it’s up to you. But a well-chosen title can add another layer of meaning to the poem.
4. Visual Aspect of Poems
- Word placement. To create emphasis where you want it, play with the placement of key words and phrases. For example, the last word on a line stands out, and a word or phrase surrounded by white space stands out, unlike one that’s buried in text.
- Line breaks. Be intentional with line breaks. They can be used to control the pace, to draw the eye to important phrases, to help the reader read it (ie. help the reader know how the poem should sound in terms of emphasis and natural breaths).
- Spacing. Consider alternate spacing, either subtle or obvious — like an extra space between letters to s l o w the reader down, or something really visual, like creating a concrete poem or “shape poem”. This can add another layer to the theme or content or emotion of a poem (The train poem in Meg Wiviott’s PAPER HEARTS is a great example (p.22). It’s written in two narrow columns so it resembles train tracks, with each line in each “track” having two syllables. That visual makes your brain practically hear the clackity clack of the train as you read.)
- White space. Make use of white space. This is obviously tied to line breaks and shape/spacing. White space on the page leaves room for the reader to ponder, to process, to bring their own thoughts and experiences into the story, and it can add impact to emotions and images.
So many possibilities! Sure, it’s a lot to think about, but oh how fun to play with words and white space, with language and musicality! If you’ve got questions, please leave a comment — I may not be able to respond right away, but I promise to get back to you! You can also connect with me on twitter @sharigreen. Happy writing!