Have you ever considered writing a novel in verse? Here are some things to keep in mind:
Is the subject matter right for poetry?
Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose.
While many stories can and will work as poetry, ask yourself if this medium is the best way to tell your story. If not, I’d advise you to take another approach.
Is the protagonist right for poetry?
Often (though not always) verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. Such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist’s part. If this isn’t your character, it’s best, in my opinion, to avoid verse.
Can you sustain the intensity required to write a novel this way?
Sometimes writing in verse feels really natural. Other times, the close-to-the-bone nature of poetry is hard to sustain.
If you are someone who can knock off thousands of words at one sitting, verse novels are going to hurt. Word counts will more realistically be in the hundreds.
Entire novels are usually under 20,000 words.
Can each poem stand alone?
Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character’s life. Poems should also be able to function separately from the rest of the story.
Does each poem contribute to the whole?
When I worked through my own verse novel, I kept a quilt in mind, treating each poem like its own square of fabric. Each patch had to be able to function separately while at the same time contribute to the whole.
I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think: themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface — a much more organic approach than is normally taken with prose.
Vary the length of poems
Some scenes flow, some end abruptly. Some thoughts wander, some jab. Use this knowledge to your advantage in composing your poetry.
Vary the length of lines
Are there key phrases or words at the heart of your poem? Play with the way you arrange words on the page to determine what look best “speaks” the poem.
Within your poem, group similar ideas as stanzas or allow key lines to stand alone.
Because poetry is both visual and aural, let the structure of your work communicate to your reader your protagonist’s emotional state.
Is she frightened? Think of how this feeling looks structurally (little punctuation? words tightly packed together?).
Is he in a hurry? How can you express this on the page?
In writing about Sylvia Plath (Your Own, Sylvia (Knopf, 2007)), author Stephanie Hemphill chose to mirror several of Plath’s poems, giving her readers a sense of the poet’s style, subject matter, intensity, and character.
Verse novels aren’t books with strange line breaks. They are stories best communicated through the language, rhythm, imagery and structure of poetry.
Caroline Starr Rose is a former middle school English and social studies teacher. Her middle-grade novel, May B., a historical novel-in-verse, releases spring 2012 from Schwartz and Wade. She blogs about reading, writing, and the publication process at Caroline By Line.