Poetic Choices

On January 22, 2018, That One Writer wrote, One of the main character’s POV is in free verse. She has a backstory that is woven in closer to the end of the story, but it’s hard to write it in free verse. Should I change her POV to the “regular” form? I would hate to do that, because her personality comes out better in verse.

And I wrote back, I hope you stick with verse! You might like to read Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and Make Lemonade and the other two books in the series by Virginia Euwer Wolff, all in free verse.

You do mean free verse rather than blank verse (iambic pentameter), right?

I am always delighted to talk poetry!

For any who don’t know, free verse is poetry that doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, meaning that the last word in each line doesn’t end with a word that rhymes with the last word in another line, in a repeating pattern. And free verse also doesn’t have regular meter, meaning that the stressed and unstressed syllables don’t come in a repeating pattern. Iambic meter, for example, goes like this: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, and so on.

Shakespeare wrote mostly in iambs (a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE). Most classical Western poets wrote in iambs. Free verse is relatively new. Dr. Seuss wrote mostly in anapests (da da DUM).

That One Writer didn’t answer my question, but, also for those who don’t know, blank verse is iambic and generally has five iambs, five da-DUMs per line. Writing–and even speaking–in iambs comes naturally to some people, who just seem to slide into it. The rest of us have to practice. A thesaurus is a big help, because it can often supply synonyms with the stresses we need.

Even in fiction written in prose, knowing about iambs is useful. They’re powerful. When we want a sentence or phrase to REALly PACK a PUNCH, iambs can help. The reader won’t notice, but the rhythm will support the meaning.

From That One Writer’s question, I’m not sure if her problem is with the poetry character’s backstory or with free verse itself, so let’s start with the backstory.

If it’s narrated in third person, I’m not sure if it needs to be in verse, or the verse can be brought in occasionally by the narrator as illustrating the character’s personality.

If the backstory is told by this MC herself, she can tell the reader in her poetic way that she’s going into memory, and the reader will get it. But if the back story needs a more definitive separation, it can be set apart from everything else with something as simple as italics or narrower margins. There are more devices we can use. She can tell the backstory in poems in her journal. The details can be revealed in prose in newspaper reports.
The backstory can be told by a different character, whose POV is in prose.

I like variety!

Back to free verse. Before I went to poetry school, I was uncertain about where to end my lines in free verse. Sometimes I still am, but now I have more knowledge to guide me.

Velocity is a big consideration in line endings. If I end a line with a word like the or of or or, the reader will race to the next line. If I end with a verb or a noun, the reader will pause for a blink. If the line ends with punctuation, the reader will pause longer. Many poets rarely end a line with the or words like it unless they have a reason. A strategy for line endings, then, is to think about speed.

In prose, the most important word in a sentence is generally the last one, as is (generally again) the last sentence in a book. Next in importance is the first word in a sentence or sentence in a book. The same is usually true in lines of poetry, but you get to decide. Some poets, like Sharon Olds (definitely high school and up), make the first word in a line the most important one. So importance is worth considering when we decide where to end a line.

However, I don’t think line endings are worth agonizing over. We end a line at the place that pleases us most, which may or may not change in revision, which is likely to change as we evolve as poets. I once read a regret by an established poet who lamented that he would have written a lot more poems in his career if he hadn’t worried so much about line endings!

We get to decide how we want the poem to appear on the page, which will affect our line endings. Do we want short lines or long or varied? Generally, whatever I pick, I hold to throughout the poem. However, if I have a reason, I might write one verse of very short lines in a poem of long lines, or vice versa. It’s up to us, as everything is in poetry.

And then there’s the question of verses. Do we want ‘em? Well, why not? If we’ve written a very short poem or we want a dense feeling or the poem sticks closely to one topic, we may not want to separate the lines into verses. If we want verses, how long should they be?. Some poets change verses the way prose writers change paragraphs. Many poets mix it up: no verses, verses like paragraphs, verses of the same number of lines, verses in a pattern of line lengths. Couplets (two-line verses), to my way of thinking, are highly emotional. Quatrains (four lines) are stately, marching down the page. Tercets (three lines) give an off-kilter, unstable feeling to a poem, which we may want sometimes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a few paragraphs from a book you love and turn them into free verse. But don’t just break the paragraphs into lines; think about how you might make them more poetic. For one thing, poetry is concise. Question every word. Any that aren’t strictly necessary get the boot. You can also bring in poetic devices, like assonance and alliteration, which will mean changing some words. (By the way, you can include dialogue, because dialogue exists in poems, too.)

∙ Do the same with a few paragraphs from your WIP.

∙ Take four lines of your free verse, or eight if the four are very short, and turn them into blank verse, with five iambs per line, which will definitely involve changing some words.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writeforfun says:

    I have an unrelated question (sorry! Mine always are!)

    Of course we all know that it is better to show than tell, in most circumstances – but sometimes we need to tell to move over things quickly.

    Unfortunately, I actually love to show – including lots of dialogue, sensory details and body language and all the little ways that we communicate by letting readers “see” what’s happening rather than flatly stating “She became angry when he told her.”

    But in my current story, there are several instances where I need to do some telling, and I’ve discovered I’m not very good at it! Mainly I need to use telling to get past a few large spaces of time where nothing happens (if I “showed” the entire time, it would become severely boring and bog down the story).

    But, alas, my telling is rather clumsy! I have trouble transitioning, mostly – it sounds trite and odd to go from a detail-packed dialogue scene to saying, “Then four months passed and then this next thing happened.” Am I right that that seems awkward? How do you switch more gracefully from showing to telling? And as you do, what sorts of details do you include in the telling? Or do you just gloss over it as quickly as possible (I suppose that’s the point of it.) I’ve seen plenty of showing in other books, of course, but I myself can’t seem write it successfully! Are there any guidelines you can think of to follow?

    I also have a couple large telling sections with a short dialogue scene that needs to happen in between to uneventful stretches of time; it’s awkward both before and after this and I just can’t figure out how to switch neatly from one to the other.

    Any ideas? Specific examples to look at? Advice of any kind? I feel like this is an unusual problem to have, but I’m stumped.

    • Actually, just today I complained to my husband, “Now I have to write a boring transition paragraph.” He suggested I describe the weather. I realized that since this is early fall, it would be a good time to describe the seasons changing, especially since my characters live out-of-doors here. Here’s what I came up with for my problem spot:

      “Rain continued off and on for the next three days, and even the dry mornings were covered in white frost. The grove trees retained their feathery leaves, but through the gap Mira glimpsed the orchard turning brown and bare. The little clearing, with a new fused-wood roof, stayed warm whenever one of the workers were in it. Mira volunteered to hold Oline as often as she could–the tiny girl radiated warmth even on the chilliest of days. Even Calder took an occasional turn, though he preferred to work alone.
      On the day before the inspection, the sun broke through the clouds.”

      Another way to do it is to use a chapter break. The chapter I’m working on started several days after the previous chapter. I started off with some action, and then slipped this in:

      “Mira, how about asking your feathered tyrant how close we are?”
      Mira rolled her eyes. They had been burning for the past eight days and Runa had a nonstop supply of horrible names for Freko.

      I find that telling paragraphs are a good place to play with the language, more so than other places. You can play around with fancy descriptions or clever wording that wouldn’t work very well in other spots, especially if you don’t stretch it out too long.

    • The days (months, hours) passed quickly (slowly) for some reason or other.
      This one is very adaptable.

      My main trick is not to look at it to closely. If I look at a any of my writing for to long I start seeing all the bad and none of the good.

    • My usual go-to format is something along the lines of: [small character action that grounds the reader in the present scene, such as walking around, looking at something etc]. It had been [amount of time] since [what happened in the last scene], and [character] had [brief (1-2 sentence) summary of what character did in the time between the last scene and this one]. Then transition back into the present scene. For example, from my WIP:
      “Kat paced around the library as she checked her notes one last time. It had only been a day since Mort had given her permission to run the government, but she had already drafted a constitution, planned a whole page’s worth of reforms, outlined a meeting agenda, and finally borrowed Mort’s magic mirror to call his privy council and trusted advisors for a meeting. Kat was quite proud of her efficiency.

      Now she waited, barely stifling a yawn as she wished for a cup of coffee.”

      Another tip is to make the transition short but humorous/witty. There’s a trope called the Noodle Incident (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NoodleIncident) that’s basically when characters refer to an event from the past but don’t explain it, which I love to use. Here’s a few from my WIP:

      “Six hours, one adventure, and two unfortunate encounters with a rogue pigeon later, Kat stepped off the bus into Central Park.”

      “Kat frowned. “How did [my friends] get from the top of the mountain to here?”
      “It’s a long story,” the woman said. “Involving an alarm system, shifty staircases, and Councilor Gatekeeper’s trousers. I’ll let them tell you.””

      Another thing I like to do is scene cuts. Instead of writing out a smooth transition (scene 1, transition paragraph, scene 2), I “cut” direction to scene 2 like in a movie. (It’s hard to explain, but think of the classic movie training montage where one scene immediately follows another with no real transition between.) Even though it’s not explicitly stated what happens between the scenes, most readers can figure out that time passes. Sometimes I’ll say exactly how much time passes (whether in dialogue, description, or showing through a character’s actions), sometimes, I’ll leave it vague. This one is easier to pull off if you’re using third person omniscient, since you can cut to other character’s POVs. Terry Pratchett uses this pretty often in his Discworld books. (For example, the scene in GUARDS! GUARDS! where three different groups of characters in different places are dealing with an attacking dragon. The scene cuts around between them, and goes directly to the main scenes without bothering with transitions.

      In my WIP, I use this with a training montage and a questing montage that consists of a bunch of little vignettes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style.

      Like Christie said, using seasons/time of day to indicate time passing is a simple way too. It doesn’t need to be fancy, and something like “the leaves turned green, red, and then withered and fell to the snow” or “the sun fell to the horizon” should work fine.

    • Lots of good advice here! I sympathize, because if I ever finish the WIP, the next bok has a 40-year gap to cover, and I’m dreading it.

      Here’s how I dealt with a 20-year gap, if that helps:

      “Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice..(Malak had) lived years upon years, more than a Deeper One could count on hands and feet…

    • A. C. Clark says:

      I struggle with telling as well. Like you, I love writing the dialogue and showing how the characters interact. What’s been helping me is reading other writers books that I love and seeing how they “tell”. One book in particular I read recently was Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend. Have you read it? She does a great job at telling transitions as well as her dialogue. There is one scene in particular that she ends a really dramatic scene with a new chapter. Instead of picking up where she left off she starts a new scene with dialogue and in the middle of the scene she refers back by telling to how the characters had gotten to this particular scene. It’s really affective. Another series I would recommend is the Harry Potter series. I know people have probably recommended that to death but J.K. Rowling does a great job at describing her transitions. She’s really good at in incorporating how Harry approaches the transitional phase. And that may help you to think about what your MC would do during the telling part. Hope that helps. ☺️

  2. How does everybody feel about medical details in stories? In my family, things like colonoscopies are perfectly normal dinner-table conversation, but it grosses out a dear family friend.

    I ask because the WIP has a scene where a patient’s brought in in acute liver failure. I’ve been in liver failure, so I went into the symptoms and related bodily functions in some detail. (Jaundice/turning yellow, edema/swelling, mental confusion, ascities/fluid in the abdomen) This character’s species never gets sick, so I figured it’s important for the reader to realize that yes, this character actually is quite sick I don’t want to gross out my readers, though. What do you think?

    • Song4myKing says:

      If it’s for adults, bring it on, I’d say. Even for YA it’s probably okay, though you might take a little more care in how you describe it (but come to think of it, some of the grosser things I’ve read in fiction were in a young adult series about the daughter of a coroner).

      There’s a difference between books and dinner table discussion, I think. While nobody in my immediate family is bothered by such conversation either, reportedly, my grandfather used to say “Not while I’m eating!” Reading it in a book would be different in two ways: one, you’re not eating (usually) while you imagine the details, and two, you have the choice of skipping if it’s too much. Not that you want people to skip, but I’d guess very few people would.

    • I agree with Song4myKing. Depends on how graphic, but in general I’d be fine with it.

      It reminds me of the time my dad found a dead rabbit’s foot and brought it home. All of my siblings thought it was really cool, and they were handling it and such. My poor sister-in-law almost fainted.

      • It’s definitely for adults. I’m actually shocked at the violence level, because I have a very low tolerance for violence, and I tried to make things as un-graphic as possible, but there are scenes in Book 1 that I wouldn’t watch on TV or in a movie. That’s the trouble with having a species that’s basically cats in alligator suits- they’re designed to hunt + kill.

        Anyway, the medical stuff: Besides having the poor guy brought in sick, they have to diurese him, and as a child character comments, “Winged Ones sure do pee a lot!”

        Ahem. Anyway. Not that I go into lots of detail, but I guess that’s ok, then?

        • Oh- I frequently read while eating! I bring books to read on my lunch break at work. And sometimes I end up wishing I’d brought something less…unappetizing. 🙂

          • Song4myKing says:

            That’s why I threw in the (usually)! Maybe reading while eating is more common than I assumed. Even when life is at its most hectic, I usually manage to squeeze in a few minutes to read somewhere, like mealtime, and even when I brush my teeth.

        • I think that’s fine. I have a WAY higher tolerance for books than movies or TV. I get to choose how I imagine books, so even if the words are graphic I can detach a bit and choose how I react to them. And, of course, it’s much easier to skip and skim with books.

  3. Sage Koldew says:

    This is just some (hopefully) helpful advice even though nobody asked.

    1.) The website https://www.notebook.ai is really helpful when it comes to world building and character development. It helps you create languages and religions, secondary characters and legendary objects, backstories and creatures. The starter pack is free but the full version is £6.64/$9 a month. It is a very valuable writing resource that I highly recommend.

    2.) Naming characters is important, so many writers use baby naming websites to aid them on the quest for the perfect name. I recommend nameberry.com for a website. My other advice is to translate words that suit the character into French, Latin, or any other language for that matter using google translate (works for objects like swords too). Another naming tip is to look to nature. Many plants, trees, flowers, and even months have character worthy names! Lilac, September, Hazel, Ash – these unusual names create a wonderful aesthetic for your characters.

    3.) Some helpful technical rules and mnemonics:

    When wondering when to start a new paragraph, remember TiPToP:
    Ti – stands for Time, so start a new paragraph for a different time period.
    P – stands for Place, so start a new paragraph for each new place.
    To – stands for Topic, so start a new paragraph for each new topic, idea or subject.
    P – stands for Person, so start a new paragraph for each new speaker.

    Affect is the Action
    Effect is the End Result

    Coordinating Conjunctions = FANBOYS

    I’ll do another thing on dialogue rules later if you would like. I can also include more later if this was helpful! Sorry for the long comment! 😉

  4. Mrs. Levine, you are more magical than the magic that you write about. I just finished The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and oh my…just…oh my!!!

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