Do you think that you can effectively use poetic language in your prose?
How do you do it?
The first priority of writing is clarity, yet poetry often muddies clarity for the sake of nuance, or metaphor, or an emotional journey. I believe that in novels you can use poetic elements —not necessarily formal poems — to enhance your writing and give your readers a more beautiful experience. I think that by using the vast palette of poetic elements, your prose becomes more distinct and gives you a voice that is unique among writers.
One way we can add elements of poetry is through musicality and sound. When you read your sentences aloud, think about how they sound. There will be a distinct beat and rhythm to each sentence you write. Sometimes you can take a bland sentence and rearrange it to where it has a more interesting feel. Now, of course, this will take time and not EVERY sentence you write has to be a symphony.
Here’s an example: In my middle-grade fiction book, I open a chapter with two brownies viewing the destruction of a backyard after a large tree falls in a storm. This is what I wrote in one draft: “The fallen branch obliterated the view of the fairy domain. The crushed fence and the smashed wildflowers poked this way and that out from under the limb. The yard was no longer a peaceful place. Now it was a dripping splintered timberland, a foreign country to small creatures like Coira and Fingal.”
I’m hoping that if you read this out loud, you can hear the repeated sounds and the harsh tones that give you a feel for destruction. I want this book to be read aloud, so I want my readers (middle-grade children and their parents) to enjoy the sound of it. (Keep in mind, this isn’t the final version. I have some trimming to do.) I could say, “the yard was a mess. The fallen tree was splintered everywhere.” But I wanted a little more musicality.
I suggest that you look over your work and take a scene that you think is kind of dull. Rewrite it, paying close attention to the sounds of the verbs — can you find substitutes for them that all sound the same? Or can you rearrange sentences in which the rhythms sound more fun?
Since a major aim in poetry is to make emotion stronger, you can use word choice to enhance the meaning of your sentences. I found this today from fiction editor Beth Hill: “Poetry is sometimes inexact. Its very nature makes readers search for meaning. This, then, would be a different level of writing, of presenting a story.” And “A fiction writer can use this technique, can write at two levels. He can write at the obvious one, where the words mean exactly what they say. And he can write at a second level, perhaps the poetic one, where there is more just under the surface. The reader who presses deep can be rewarded by the additional revelation and the beauty he finds inside a writer’s phrasings and multi-layered meanings.”
Go back to the first link I mentioned and reread those sentences and consider how the author came to choose each individual word. Then return to your own work, use a thesaurus, and choose words that are full of meaning and stronger emotion.
You can also make word choices based on sound. There are three big ways to do this: Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance. Alliteration is the repetition of beginning sounds. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds—and consonance—repetition of consonants. These elements, depending on your scene, character, or genre, can draw attention to things you want your reader to notice.
This is the crushed red pepper of the literary world. You really do NOT want to overdo it. Some genres can handle it well, like children’s lit, but some not so much. Pay attention to it when you read books in your genre and see how they use repetitive sound patterns and use them as guides.
BTW: You knew exactly what I meant when I said, “crushed red pepper” didn’t you? THAT’S why we use metaphors!
I’ll be honest, I’ve only been a poetry fan for a short time, but the more I study it, and the more I recognize it in prose, the more I want to use it in my novels. I think it’s helpful as writers to expand our knowledge and open ourselves up to new ideas and points of view.
I suggest you sample poetry — like you would a new foreign cuisine. Try a little here and there, read a little, listen to podcasts, pick up a poetry book at a thrift store. Chew slowly. Savor the flavors. If you don’t like it, don’t go back. Try something else.
And then, if you really really like something, memorize it. Study it and find out what it is that draws you to it. Look for patterns and think about how to apply this pattern to your fiction.
Pay attention to your favorite novelists and keep your eye out for beautiful sentences and save them.
Poetry, I believe, enriches our soul and the souls of our readers.