Ancient storytellers understood the power of telling a story in verse. Writers today have embraced this method of storytelling so much that the verse novel is now a category of its own. But what exactly is a verse novel and how does it differ from a traditional novel?
Ann Featherstone, most recently an editor with Fitzhenry and Whiteside and now the owner of Featherstone Editing Services, says, “When you say verse novel I think of a free verse novel, where there is no rhyme scheme, and where the rhythm can change. Free verse doesn’t employ complex punctuation to impose a rhythm that approximates human speech or narrative flow. Instead, shorter lines and line drops create the rhythm. A free verse novel tends to use fewer words to convey atmosphere and plot. But I don’t think of a free verse novel as radically different from a traditional novel. Characterization, story, voice are equally important in both.”
“A verse novel is, and should be, first and foremost a novel, with a compelling story line and plot, richly developed characters, and a distinctive narrative voice,” says Emma D. Dryden, most recently Vice President and Publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing and now a consulting editor under her own banner, drydenbks. Verse, she says, “asks the reader to experience the story in a way that may leave more to the imagination, that may not tell all, and relies as much on the white space between the lines as it does on the words in the lines themselves.”
For Margery Cuyler, Publisher of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books, “Verse is all about voice. As long as the author can use it skillfully so that the story of a person’s life isn’t compromised, it can be very effective in getting across emotion, details, and nuance in a way that prose can’t always accomplish. Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, for example, will write a poem about one moment in a great person’s life, and that moment typifies some important aspect of the person’s character—a microcosm of the person.”
According to Dryden, “A good verse novel—an excellent verse novel—has such a strong and mesmerizingly compelling story line, characters, and voice that the reader does not even recognize they are reading poetry at all. An excellent verse novel is the novel that is reviewed and talked about and not referred to as a verse novel.”
Structured and True
“The verse structure through which the story is told should be an organic part of the fabric of that story, hidden and delicate as gossamer, but as strong as steel,” continues Dryden. The verse is the story’s “architecture. You don’t normally go into a building and think about what it looks like or it is made of . . . . The verse through which a story is told ought not need to be analyzed or examined too closely, too quickly. It is a means by which to experience a story.” A deeper look at the poetry can then take the reader further, and “add a fantastic and unexpected secondary element to the reading experience.”
More and more true stories are being told in verse. In these novels in particular the author must balance poetic device with storytelling skills.
“When talking about biography,” says Cuyler, “a good story in verse depends largely on the individual story of the subject who is being addressed.” These true verse stories must “engage the reader in a series of moments, rather than in a plot that builds to a climax and ends in a resolution. Cuyler cites Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy. It “is based on the riveting true story of one child’s remarkable survival in the Lodz Ghetto, when thousands of other children were dying harsh deaths at the hands of the Nazis. Because the author chose to write the book in free verse, the story unfolds as a series of small moments that electrify the reader and create a mood, much as an architect influences an individual by designing a building that shapes a mood.”
Poetry can be a hard sell, yet tweens, teens, and even adult readers seem to gravitate toward verse novels.
“Verse novels appeal to teenagers more than middle-graders, for a clear reason,” Dryden says. “Teens are in the throes of the complexities of their lives and looking for a way to emote and express themselves: They tweet, they message, they journal.”
Indeed, she notes, “texting and tweeting—due to the fact that [they] necessitate brevity and a concise use of language—could be called a form of verse. That may be a stretch, but I would argue that kids who are familiar with reading and expressing themselves in this abbreviated fashion are going to be wide open to reading novels and stories expressed through a similar format, with which teens will be immediately comfortable.”
Verse novels can excite a normally reluctant reader. “Teachers and parents will find that a free verse novel may be easier for a reluctant reader,” says Featherstone. “Short lines and pages with ample white space give the reader a sense of accomplishment as they find they can turn the pages much faster. But sometimes they have to be talked into giving it a try.”
To tell a story in verse, you need all the elements of a novel, as well as the skills of a poet. So, why bother?
“Verse tells the small stories that make up the one, big story,” says Cuyler. “Using verse is simply a different approach; it allows the storyteller to capture a slender thread. A collection of slender threads sewn together makes a big piece of cloth.”
Featherstone says, “If a writer is telling a story where the narrator is the protagonist, free verse can get inside the head of that character effectively. If the story is as much about the internal world of that narrator as it is about external plot and characters, free verse often achieves that world in the most economical and effective way possible.”
Authors should be clear on the characteristics and quality of this form. Verse does not mean “rhyming sing-song poetry, which is what some people think of whenever they hear the word verse or poetry,” says Dryden, who describes the verse in novels “as short rhythmic sentences, with a minimum and careful use of detail and dialogue, a conscious paring away of extraneous language to get to the essence of an emotion or an event, and a use of some traditional poetic forms (metaphor, simile, metrical structure, and in some cases, rhyme) to enrich the narrative.”
Verse can be an emotional tool. “Novels that address tough subject matter that might cause a reader to feel utterly overwhelmed by emotion or unpleasant graphic details can be served well by being written in verse,” says Dryden. “The format allows for white space on the page, creating a visual pause that allows the reader—indeed, encourages the reader—to take a breath, to look away, to slow down, before continuing with the story. Ellen Hopkins uses verse to brilliant effect to tell highly charged and uncomfortable stories that address such subjects as drug addiction, rape, severe family dysfunction, confusing sexuality, etc.”
Verse can echo internal and external landscapes. Dryden points to Karen Hesse’s Out Of The Dust, where “spare language matches in mood and rhythm the sparseness of the 1920s dustbowl backdrop. In Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy, a by turns gentle and violent staccato language that leaves much unsaid matches the tenor of the streets on which the characters live and try to survive. In Lorie Ann Grover’s On Pointe, verse that stretches and shortens from line to line is inspired by and inspires the pulse of the ballet studio in which the main character experiences joy and loss.”
Less is more is especially true when writing in verse. “The main challenge for writers,” says Featherstone, “is that they must find a way to cut to the chase. They can’t overuse flashbacks or multiple points of view. They should think carefully about the structure of every scene they write. What is left unwritten is as important as the words chosen.”
Verse novels require balance. “The poetry needs to be spare, but not so spare as to be confusing; the writer should not expect the reader to fill in too much of the story. The poetry also needs to feel seamless, neither forced nor overly self-conscious,” says Dryden. Poetic form does not elevate a weak story. “Writers can make the mistake of thinking if they put a somewhat mundane or familiar story into a verse format, it will suddenly be made fresh and new—as if putting it into verse will mask the fact that story is not quite rich enough or deep enough or strong enough,” she argues. “First and foremost, you need to have confidence and faith that your story—told in whatever format—is fresh, compelling, complex, and true.”
Dryden suggests imagining your story read by a great actor, with pauses that “give meaning and subtlety to the phrases. Use those natural pauses to create your line drops. . . . Don’t use overly complex syntax; you’ll never get rhythm that way. Think of your story as having a score: Imagine music that is appropriate to each scene playing in the background. Let it help you find the rhythm.”
Cuyler sums up, “Write it to be heard, as if you’re writing music. If written well, verse should reach at least one corner in every person who hears it.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.