Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Waxing Poetically in Fiction

I am not a poet.

Yes, I have written poetry, and some of it might even be palatable, but overall, it would receive no finger snaps upon hearing them.

What I do have, however, is poetic license within my fiction and non-fiction writing.

Just like fiction, there are elements within poetry that when developed well can heighten the caliber of the work. Some of those elements include voice, imagery, sound, rhythm, and structure; I'm sure you already see how these elements find their way into fiction, too.

We can all agree that fiction writers care about the voices of their characters, especially the voice(s) of the main character(s) that readers follow throughout a novel. What these characters say (and don't say) and how they say it informs readers and helps them to make the characters real in their minds.

In developing their characters and the worlds in which they live, fiction writers also care about the use of imagery. This, of course, does not mean to write flowery prose or be heavy-handed with images, but it does mean that the use of images can help illustrate the setting, the tone, the overall feeling that encompasses a story. Just like we would be light in how we apply seasonings to a tasty dish, we would be wise to discern when, where, and how to use imagery in our fiction.

Sound is important to consider as a fiction writer, too. Using onomatopoeia (words that imitate natural sounds—buzzed, crunched, babble) is a great way to produce sound in your work. Alliteration is another way to incorporate sound—though I probably wouldn't use too many Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers throughout my story; I'm sure you get the gist, however. 

Rhythm ties into sound for me because often the sounds we create in our stories, especially if we use something like alliteration (or a rhyme scheme) produce a rhythm. With the daily interaction I have with my 4-year-old niece and 7-year-old nephew, I am constantly reading children's books—and loving it, by the way! In doing so, I get to revel in the use of sound, rhythm, and rhyme that livens up the stories and makes them fun to read--quietly, but especially aloud. Another component that ties into rhythm is sentence development. Consider three paragraphs in a story. Paragraph 1 contains all short sentences, paragraph 2 contains all long sentences, and paragraph 3 contains a mix of the two lengths. There is no right or wrong here regarding which paragraph would be better—unless we delve into the context of your story. If, for example, your character is running from an intruder, a paragraph with shorter sentences might heighten the fear, the rush of action that occurs. If your character is experiencing her first taste of freedom in years, a paragraph with longer sentences that explore the character's thoughts and what we see as readers might be more appropriate. Either way, how we write our sentences and then how we fit them together play an important role in developing appropriate rhythm (or pacing) in our stories and in heightening a reader's involvement while reading our stories.

In a BRP piece I wrote six years ago, I talked about how we can effectively use line breaks in our stories to give readers additional space to think and to feel as they read your story. How we structure our words on the page can affect how a reader responds to our stories, too. In the older post, I talked of a friend who remembered reading my MFA thesis (a novel) and how much he enjoyed seeing my use of line breaks throughout the story and how the breaks affected his read. He recently brought that back up to me. I wrote this story almost 18 years ago. This told me that how we tell our stories matters.

Keep in mind that this poetic license I carry isn't something I consciously use when I'm writing a first (or second) draft of a story. However, in revisions and rewrites, it's important to examine how I can craft my stories to be pleasing to read to my audience. You don't have to be a fan of poetry, but I think it's a great idea to recognize what marries it to our storytelling and how we might enhance our stories by using poetic elements.

Shonell Bacon is an author, editor, and educator with 20 years of experience in helping all levels of writers become better writers. When not editing, Shonell is writing (mysteries, literary, non-fiction) and crafting digital products for people who love planning and organizing their lives. You can learn more about Shonell and her works on her Linktree page.


  1. Hi Shonell! I try to pay attention to the elements you mention when I'm doing my revisions, along with the five senses that tend to get left out in my first drafts. Some of the books I've read, like The Searchers by Tana French, remind me to slow down and think about what I'm doing.

  2. I agree on all counts, Shon. Words that rise up from the page to transport me into a scene almost always grab my attention. (The only exception might be an overly graphic and gruesome scene.) Thank you for reminding us all of imagery's value. It's paint on the story's canvas: the bright spots, she shadows, the brilliance, the subtleties -- the poetry that connects the reader to the characters. This post is definitely a keeper.

  3. Great post, Shon and a great reminder of those elements of poetry that enhance prose. I've always been attuned to the rhythm of the words and how that rhythm helps convey the story.


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