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Add Poetry to Your Prose—Write with Flair

March 29, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 20, 2013

Looking for a change, something new or fresh for your writing?

Why not add a little poetry, some lyricism. A song.

No, I’m not suggesting you write in rhyme or a certain meter, but why not add a dash of the poetic? Why not give one character a speech pattern with some music to it? Maybe have one character use words that other characters would never choose or have him speak and think in long, winding sentences. Or maybe short, choppy ones.

Perhaps your phrases are quite literal, and a spattering of the figurative would give your writing some oomph, some panache, some flair.

Why not explore one more option for creating better, more memorable, stories?

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When we write long fiction and get caught up in our stories—the plot, the characterization, the zillions of choices we must make to create a cohesive and entertaining book—we sometimes forget about the flourishes, the little touches that could make our writing move beyond the pedestrian and into the remarkable.

We can introduce new words, certainly, to add a different flavor. But we can also add different combinations of words, phrases that take the writing to a different place. Not necessarily to a different competency level, as if we’re saying one style is better than another. But to a different emotional level, a place where the words are more than functional and dependable. A place where they are also beautiful or exotic. Or maybe simply unexpected. Arresting. Inspired.

Poetic.

Prose tends to be more straightforward and direct than poetry. But that doesn’t mean our fiction can’t be figurative and less than direct. It should be clear, of course; we don’t want to confuse the reader, make him have to decipher meanings when he only wants to know what Heloise plans to do about her husband’s embezzling. But we can shake up the writing. And we can tickle the reader. And we can add flourishes here and there to spice up our workhorse phrases.

Will all fiction benefit from a touch of whimsy or poetry? Of course not. The strength of some stories is in their no-nonsense presentation. But knowing how to add a touch of the poetic gives the fiction writer one more tool to help him create memorable fiction.

How can you add poetry to your fiction?

Musicality
Think in terms of music. Think harmony, beat, and cadence. Add or change the rhythm of phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Is there any pattern? Should there be? What would a change to a more musical-sounding style do to a story?

Read paragraphs aloud. Do they please the ear? Is there variety in rhythm?

Don’t put your readers to sleep with monotony in rhythm, the droning of words and phrases of relentless uniformity. You can write well, with cohesion and clarity, even as you strive for variety in all the elements (word choice, word combinations, word order, sentence construction, and so on).

You can change the pulse of a story by shortening or lengthening sentences, by using words with fewer, or more, syllables. You can affect meaning of a passage by choosing words with specific letter combinations, combinations that create poetry in sound.

Consider the effects of a name change. How does the sound of a different name (for character or place) change the mood of a piece, the tone of a scene? Does the rhythm of a name make a difference? What of the sounds of the name itself? Do the sounds predispose a reader toward a character? Against him?

Sound
What do a character’s thoughts sound like? Is there a rhythm to them? Maybe you want to make one character’s thoughts fluid, lyrical, and another’s harsh and broken.

Maybe one character uses smooth words with soft sounds and rolling cadences while another uses harsh words made of harsh sounds.

Rhythm and musicality can be affected not only by word sound but by word length. Some words are intrinsically musical; perhaps there’s something in the number of syllables or the grouping of letters or even in the meanings of the words.

Can you wax poetic using words such as gossamer, eloquence, rhapsody, transcendent? What about angelic, delicious, serenity, whimsical, vivid, breathtaking, melancholy, soulful, tranquil? A few more—majestic, expansive, lush, twilight, smoky, mystery, and evocative.

I know you have words of your own you could add to this list; we all have favorite words that please our ears and tug at our heartstrings. Sometimes we like the look of a word on the page, the way it stands out among the words surrounding it. We may like a word because of its unfamiliarity, its newness, its bearing.

The words I listed aren’t unusual words. But they are words that carry music in them or create emotion by their use.

Could you use such words in your prose to bring music to your sentences and scenes? To elicit an emotional response from your readers?

Emotionally Charged Words
Using emotionally charged words or words that stir emotions in the reader is another strength of poetry. Poetry is intentionally and unashamedly evocative. A major aim in poetry is to either create emotion or make it stronger.

Fiction writers can do this as well, stir emotions. And while there are several methods for creating emotional responses in readers, word choice is a potent one. Choosing words for their emotional impact is one more way to introduce the poetic into fiction.

Poetry is sometimes inexact. Its very nature makes readers search for meaning. This, then, would be a different level of writing, of presenting story.

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.

Metaphor
Fiction writers can take advantage of poetry’s strengths by using metaphor or choosing words with hidden meanings. Sometimes there really is more to a story or scene or phrase than just the words on the page. Sometimes, as our language arts teachers tried to point out, there is more to a story than the obvious.

Use metaphor and imagery to add a different feel to your scenes.

More on Sound
Fiction writers can also sample the poet’s tricks of alliteration—repeating first sounds of words—and rhyme—matching sounds at the ends of words.

Alliteration seems to be more commonly accepted in prose than rhyme is, perhaps because rhyme is so closely associated with poetry (and often with bad poetry). I wouldn’t suggest using rhyme often, but you could always insert a hint of a rhyme, see what it does for your scene and the mood and/or tone. Give your characters’ personalities a touch of shading by playing with their words (in both dialogue and thought).

To create poetry in fiction, you can also work with assonance—repetition of vowel sounds—and consonance—repetition of consonants.

Punctuation
Punctuation has great control over the musicality of sentences. Play with your punctuation. Take out commas and periods and go for flow. Combine into one sentence others that you’ve divided into three or four.

Words
Add more words into phrases or take some out. Try a new way of saying the same thing.

Change word order in a sentence to give more emphasis to a different object or idea. Give a different word the first spot in a paragraph so that it makes a splash. Choose a word that resonates as the final word in a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter so that the sound stays with the reader. And then play off that sound in the next paragraph or scene or chapter.

Try it, this messing around with words. Play with word order, changing the ordinary to extraordinary, to something unusual, unexpected. Something arresting. Something sharp or melodious, staccato or smooth. Add poetry to your prose.

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Write for the ear; then see if you can’t feel it in the heart.

Think pulse and pattern and relentless beat. Think cadence. Up and down. Think up and up and up.

Create harmonies with your words and phrases. Make music. See what direction music can lead (or drive) your story into.

We’ve been talking sound here, but while we’re crafting for the ear, we’re also making images. Sound can create feelings, but it also allows us to see; sounds are image evokers as well as emotion makers.

Poets do this well, this evoking of images with words and sounds. Fiction writers can and should do it too.

Think of ways to create an image, build an image. That is, don’t tell the reader what something looks like. Bring it into existence layer by layer, the same way a poet reveals his images, until it’s recognizable as an entity. Add details until the picture you’re painting is a complete one, a complex one, one with form and depth and meaning. Give your image dimensions rather than flat description.

How many dimensions can you layer in without overwhelming your image, without overwhelming (or boring) your reader? Find out. Some stories and characters and ideas need only a few layers. Others may be able to handle more without collapsing under the weight. Add layers, but don’t go beyond the tipping point.

Use the stylings of poetry, but only if they fit the scene, the character, the mood, the story. While your use of the poetic might stand out, you don’t want your word choices and word orders to stop the reader, to take him out of the story and have him thinking about the quality of the writing rather than about the fiction itself.

Make the story good, but don’t allow your style choices to distract the reader.

Explore lyricism and rhythm.

Add poetry to enhance your style.

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3 Responses to “Add Poetry to Your Prose—Write with Flair”

  1. Thanks, glad you like that style of writing prose. I’ve been doing exactly that for years (twenty anyway). Nobody told me to, I guess it was the influence of music and dance in my life. The first editor that looked at my first novel: The Nun said it was too short to sell and said the prose was so poetic I should rewrite it as an epic poem and might have better luck selling it. But I left it alone and submitted it to a press that had published only poetry before then. Susan Bright at Plain View Press said they’d been considering publishing some fiction and The Nun was their first fiction selection published in 1992. A 2nd Edition is forthcoming from PVP in 2012. Check out their site: http://www.plainviewpress.com for the many many wonderful fiction and poetry books they offer.

  2. Sandy, congratulations on the second edition coming out. That’s great.

    Sounds as if you wrote your first novel at the perfect time to take advantage of your skills and writing style. Here’s hoping many readers discover your stories.

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