Rhymes and Misdemeanors

Thinking about writing in rhyme? Maybe you’re hoping that putting your story in rhyme will kick it up a notch; make the ordinary extraordinary; help your manuscript stand out in the slush. Just remember: rhyming alone doesn’t make a story poetic.

I have read so many poems and stories in verse that could be so much better with just a little effort. Because flawless meter and true rhyme scan effortlessly, some aspiring rhymers never even realize the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into a beautiful poem. In truth, most poets toil over their work. But don’t despair — it’s really not so hard to polish rhyming text if you know what to look for. The following tips will help you give your own poetry the tender loving care it deserves — and needs! — to sing.

Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Consider whether or not to rhyme before you start writing. Your decision may change along the way, but here are a few compelling reasons to try to rhyme:

  • Stories that have a musical or repetitive (rhythmic) theme are often enhanced by a rhyming format.
  • Young children and beginning readers enjoy rhyme instinctively because it helps them predict what comes next and remember what they read.
  • Rhyming sets a tone for writing: funny, playful, upbeat, or epic.

The bottom line on whether to rhyme? If the format constricts your story, you’re probably better off with prose.

Meter

Don’t count syllables. Good meter has two components: matching stressed and unstressed beats, and natural stresses on each word.

The “matching stresses” part is pretty straightforward. I’ve diagrammed a few lines below to illustrate what I mean. CAPS indicate stressed syllables, lowercase letters indicate unstressed syllables.

there ONCE was a MAN from peRU          u/S/uu/S/uu/S

who DREAMED he was EATing his SHOE          u/S/uu/S/uu/S

The unstressed syllables tend to disappear when poetry is read aloud. What needs to match from line to line is not the total number of syllables, but the number and pattern of stressed beats. Some writers assume that people will adjust their reading to emphasize unstressed syllables and make the meter “work,” but that makes a poem clunky and forced. A great poem can be read well by ANYONE who reads it, the first time through.

The stresses in the example above fall in the natural places where the stresses land when most people say the words in speech. If we monkey with the meter by adding a word, the line can be read several different ways, none of them graceful.

there once WAS a young MAN from PERu          uu/S/uu/S/u/Su
-or-
there ONCE was a YOUNG man from perU          u/S/uu/ S/uuu/U
-or-
there ONCE was a YOUNG man from PERu          u/S/uu/S/uu/S/u

The easiest way I’ve found to check poems for wishful meter is to format the manuscript using the lowercase/CAPS pattern to note natural stresses. A quick visual scan shows whether the pattern is symmetrical throughout the poem:

there ONCE was a MAN from peRU
who DREAMED he was EATing his SHOE

FAQ: Can I change my meter within a longer piece? Yes, with reason. It should happen at an appropriate point in the piece – with increased drama, to signal slowing down, or to note a different narrator. It’s also fine to switch meter to break up a sing-songy pattern. But it should still have symmetry within the larger work. So only shifting meter for a stanza here or there is not okay; having a refrain or “break” type shift at several well-spaced points within a piece can add interest and depth.

True Rhymes and Misdemeanors

Rhyming dictionaries are great tools, but they are not foolproof. Writers should consider whether listed words rhyme in typical everyday use. Grain and again do not rhyme in American English, though they’re often listed as rhyming in dictionaries. You can make them rhyme if you know they’re coming, but first-time readers will stumble. Pay attention to regional dialects. A friend from Ohio often inserts the letter r into words – as in, warsh the clothes. In her corner of the world, warsh and harsh rhyme. But for the vast majority of American readers, they do not. When in doubt, go with universal pronunciations.

What about near-rhymes such as men/bend or wink/ring—are they absolutely verboten? Most of the time it’s possible to work around them, so when I find verse sprinkled with near-rhyme, I tend to assume the writer hasn’t tried hard enough. In my own work, if I have bent over backwards looking for a way around a near-rhyme and both words in the rhyme are critical to what I’m trying to say, I may let them be. But it’s a last resort, and should not be something so jarring that the reader stops short when she gets to the end of the line.

What about those annoying lines that simply Will Not Rhyme? See if you can live without them. Do they say something important? Do they say something you’ve said elsewhere? If you really and truly need the pesky words, try changing their position. Maybe you can end the line with a word that is easier to rhyme. Sometimes mixing up a stanza solves the problem: move line four up to line two and see what shakes out. And in the end, consider this: if you’ve poked and prodded and shoehorned to make a verse work, it may not work at all.

FAQ: Is it okay to use poetic license to rearrange words in an unconventional way to make the end rhymes work? Sometimes writers invert a sentence so the word order is unnatural. For example, No more baking should you do. No one talks like this! If you’re writing an epic, artsy piece in which the whole structure and narrative voice is rather high-falutin’, it might fly. But sneaking an inverted line into a poem told in an ordinary voice is a red flag that calls attention to the problematic line.

Housekeeping

Rhyming stories and poems suffer from the same maladies as prose: flabby plots, one-dimensional characters, pat resolutions. Unfortunately, these problems are sometimes obscured by a rhyming format. Good meter and true rhymes are not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If your writing isn’t well developed, even perfectly metered poems and stories will not impress the reader. So don’t forget to review these elements of any good story:

  • Characters: Are they well rounded? Realistic? Imperfect? Integral?
  • Plot: Do you have one? Is the problem or quest interesting?
  • Pacing: Does your story march forward? Is your storytelling voice strong and rich? Have you eliminated all the clutter words and cereal fillers?
  • Resolution (in poems, this may just be an ending twist): is the payoff worth the effort to get there? Will the reader leave your piece with surprise, delight, and/or satisfaction?

There is something so pleasing about a poem that hits the mark on content and form. It’s true, most readers will ever know how hard it is to get your rhymes to sing…but that’s okay. You will.

Looking to improve your own poetry?

First, fine-tune your ears by reading hundreds of good poems. May I suggest:

  • Douglas Florian: MAMMALABILIA
  • MaryAnn Hoberman: SEVEN SILLY EATERS
  • J. Patrick Lewis: THE LITTLE BUGGERS
  • Alice Schertle: HOW NOW, BROWN COW?
  • Linda Smith: WHEN MOON FELL DOWN
  • Janet Wong: GRUMP

This article first appeared on www.kidmagwriters.com, November, 2004.

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