Elements of Poetry

Go ahead—groan. As soon as I say the word ‘poetry’, almost everyone closes up because they’re thinking of the common,

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sugar is sweet

And so are you!”

And that is not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is rhyme and rhythm—subtlety done. Putting poetic skills into play with poise. For some people, this comes naturally. For others, it will take practice.

Poetry offers a very important and ancient element to writing. In the days of old when stories were told orally, poetry was the most common form because it was easier to remember, and who doesn’t like a good story?

When you’re sitting around a camp fire at night and someone is telling a story, would you rather listen to a monotone story of how a group of people once went into these woods only to disappear, or would you rather hear the rise and fall of the voice, the suspenseful pauses, the use of the environment (such as throwing a firecracker into the fire the moment a gunshot goes off in the story), and the speed, then slowness of the voice? Which would you prefer to hear? Which one would you remember for the rest of your life?

Poetry is the only key to ancient storytelling that translates into modern day writing. Sure it gets complicated—look at Shakespeare if you want a reminder, but it doesn’t have to be. The primary use of poetics in prose is to paint a picture.

Here is something I had written, but we’re going to dissect it, so you can identify the poetic elements:

Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around, then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

Knowing the wolves were of no threat to him, he tugged the edges of his hood closer to his face and hugged his cloak around him as he ducked his head and pressed on through the skin-biting wind, step by step through the snow, ice, and rock. Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood. If he lifted his head, he knew he would see the impressive sight of Nirrorm’s castle jutting out of the mountain at the end of the valley―its sharp towers a contrast in the night and an imposing, frightening sight to the unfamiliar, but he kept walking―one step at a time.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

He stood at the foot of the wall staring at the structured stone. His journey had drained him, and he did not wish to speak above a whisper, for he had little strength. He knew he could conjure a magical orb that would answer the watchmen’s question, but he was familiar with the laws of Nirrorm.

Magic was forbidden here.

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him. As if that would harm him. A small smirk touched the corner of his pale lips, but he swallowed and forced his voice to be heard. “I am Prince Lorrek of Cuskelom, and I seek sanctuary.”

All right, so on the surface it looks like a normal intro to a story, but let me take it apart for you, so you can see the elements of poetry at work here. Let’s draw out the sounds of just the first paragraph:

‘A’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘A_E’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face

‘AIN’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘D’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

EE’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘H’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face…

‘IGHT’: wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘K’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape…

‘L’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘O’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘R’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain…

‘S’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf‘s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘T’ & ‘TH’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

This is the poetic element in its basic form. We use alliteration to make the first letters of the words to rhyme such as the ‘T’ and ‘TH’ here: ‘he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain’. Rhyming occurs at the end of the word such as ‘ bright night‘. Assonance also comes into play, and this makes the middle of the words to rhyme, as it did here: ‘…the full moon’s pale face.’

The use of sounds via letters is important, but the use of sounds via repetition is also a tool.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

Now, I could have said “the honorable watchmen noticed him before he saw them” or the other way around, and my editors and proofreaders would recommend I change it, but it just sounds right. For an example of one that doesn’t sound right, here:

Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood.

The use of ‘well’ doesn’t flow easily, and it doesn’t sound right to my ears. I would probably rephrase one or the other so I don’t repeat that word. It can work the way it is, but I don’t like the sound of it.

Here’s another example of the use of repetition to stress a point:

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him.

Sure, he lifted his chin, so we automatically know he’s looking up, but I wanted to stress just how close to the wall he was and how high the wall was, so I repeated the word three times. Very rarely do I use a word more than three times when doing this, but it’s not unheard of.

Using repetition creates a sound—a rhythm. Another example of repetition this way is with the use of the word ‘and’. In the text above I don’t have an example, but it’s something like this:

He went up the stairs and down the hall and through the chambers and into the last place her saw her—the hanging gardens.

The use of ‘and’ here is deliberate. It sets a rhythm, stresses a point, and draws out the systematic way he searched for her.

Repeating little words to form a rhythm or set a pace to a story is often frowned upon by editors. In their mind you’re supposed to use the word once in a sentence/paragraph because it’s more professional that way—more proper. However, if you deliberately used those words, don’t back down just because someone disagrees with you. Show them why you did what you did. This is why it is very important to know why you must choose every word that you write with care.

So check your own style. Does it use any elements of poetry that I’ve explained? Does it use sound as I demonstrated? Sure, it might not be your style, but it’s worth experimenting with. Applying these tools properly takes practice. That is why it is important to read and write poetry even though you may never publish it or allow anyone to read it. Study the sounds, observe the structure, and it will slip into your writing, adding an extra depth to your words, sharpening those images, and strengthening those sentences.

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Origin of the Narrative

Last week, we discussed the narrative—the telling part of the story—and I explained how necessary it is. Now we’re going to take a step back and determine its origin—not the literal origin but rather its beginning with each writer. So, where does the narrative begin? Lets consider the general beginnings of a writer.

As a young person, your parents or teachers probably encouraged you to keep a journal. This is usually the first introduction a young person has to writing. It is a ‘safe place’—someplace you can go and tell all your secret thoughts, dreams, desires, fears, and failures without being rejected or discouraged. You begin by recounting your day and how the events unfolded. You capture snippets of conversations you truly had or overheard, and you draw (sometimes literally) pictures of things you saw or imagined. Journal writing is very sacred, and they might never be read by anyone other than yourself all your life.

Then as you get older, you might dabble with poetry—maybe as homework assignments or as mere experimentation for yourself. It’ll likely appear in your journal here and there. The key with poetry is its profound depth of emotion. It is raw—very close to you, and it might be rare for you to share them with anyone. You don’t want people to know that side of you or all those secret thoughts or feelings in those situations. No, you have a persona to present, so you lock them away—howbeit in immortal ink on paper.

After much reading with adventures alongside the books’ characters, you decide to channel your experiences through story form. How do you do it? You choose a storyline that captures your attention—something like a character stumbles upon the truth that fairy tale characters are real and are part of another secret government agency, and everything unravels as the main character (the MC) tries to determine truth from fiction, and so forth. All right, so you have the story, who will be the MC? If you’re a guy, you’d likely decide the MC to be male. After all, you don’t want to mess up writing a female character! The women will likely butcher you if you mess up any representation of them. Women, the same applies for you. You’d likely create a female MC. If you’re young, the MC will likely be around your age—probably a teenager.

So you have the story and the MC, now you have to decide the proper ‘person’ for your story (first person, second person, or third person). Now, up to this point, you’ve only written in your journal with the focus being on all your experiences in life. Naturally that is written in first person, so you’re comfortable with it. That is likely what you will choose as the person for the story, so the story will be primarily from the MC’s point of view (POV).

So what does all this have to do with narrative? It is essential to a story that the narrative be invisible. This means the author must not be noticeable. There are times when I read a story, and I know the author is writing fictional tales of their life. To be honest, I don’t care about the author’s life story (unless I bought the book understanding that is what it is about—in which case, it’d better be non-fiction). I’m an author, and personally I know how boring a writer’s life can be. Who wants to read about someone sitting at a computer writing? There are only so many ways that can be done and redone creatively before it gets boring.

When the author decides to go on an adventure but under the guise of a character, it sticks out. For instance, I mentor young writers all the time, and their first few stories are always about a character of their gender and age carrying out the story. The character has the same personality and habits as their author. This is most evident when the story is set in a different era, and the characters talk with modern dialect when there are no time-travelers.

Author-based characters borderline ‘Mary Sues’—the ‘perfect’ character, who ends up being the most loathed character in the story as well. Why do these characters become ‘Mary Sues’? They’re based on the author, and as a human being, we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to be fooled or make a fool out of ourselves. We don’t want people laughing at us but rather respecting us, and we don’t want to lose. Therefore, the story becomes stilted because it is compromising for a single character, and that is unrealistic. As authors, we strive in making our characters’ lives miserable.

Is it wrong to have a character or narrative based on the author? No. Many books are published where the author is the obvious narrator. The problem? Writers do this when they’re at the beginning stages of their writing and have little experience. This is comfortable for them because of their experience with journal writing and such. When I see a narrator like this in a story, I put the book down. What impresses me more is when the author is completely invisible—when I don’t notice the narrator, and when the characters are so unique and individual that they capture my attention completely and yank me into the story.

“Okay, so how do I make sure I don’t write an author-based narrative?” Since characters and narratives are closely linked together, in order to ensure your narrative is invisible, put distance between your characters and yourself. If you’re a guy writing a story, make your main character (MC) female. If you’re female, then make the MC male. You might wince at this thought, but surprisingly oftentimes men write better female characters than women while women tend to write better male characters. Why? Because in the end, both men and women are people. Down at their core and values, they all have the same struggles, fears, and desires.

When your MC is the opposite gender, suddenly there is a distance. You don’t worry about what people will think of you or if they’ll think you’re the character. Instead, you know that character isn’t you, and you will be more receptive to listen what that character says and show what that character does without fear of you yourself being judged. Once you develop this relationship with your characters, it’s easier to write those characters of your own gender because you have already established the necessary distance between your characters and your own person.

Another way to keep the narrative invisible is to use third person rather than first person because it offers yet another distance. Is it wrong to write first person? No, but it is the person most commonly used by novice writers because of the transition from journal writing to story writing. To become more experienced with writing, you should experiment with all different persons (including second person) until you find which one you are most comfortable with—the one which best shows your story.

When writing, don’t sit there thinking, “Must make my narrative invisible. Must make it invisible. Is it invisible?” Don’t worry about it. Don’t fret over it. All this information is necessary to have in the back of your mind, and when the moment comes, you’ll have it right when you need it. So keep writing. Be mindful of what I said, but don’t fret.