Pamela Porter is the author of two novels in free verse: The Crazy Man and I’ll Be Watching (which you can begin reading on Figment for a limited time here!) I’ll Be Watching is the story of four Depression-era orphans struggling to survive in a small prairie town and–against all odds, and with some ghostly help–succeeding. Porter is brilliant when it comes to turning stoic prose into flowing verse, and we’re lucky enough to get her tips below.
Many people ask me, what’s the difference between writing regular fiction and writing in verse? Well, the label “verse novel” has been slapped on these books by, I don’t know–librarians, teachers, publishers–as a way to try to name this style of telling a story in which the lines don’t go all the way to the end of the page. A few pesky authors start messing around with the way they put words on a page and some people start scratching their heads. Actually, writing stories in narrative poems isn’t any harder than writing in prose, and you can do it. You just go about seeing the story a little differently.
First of all, if you want to write in shorter lines, with stanzas instead of paragraphs, you have a lot less space in which to tell the story you want to tell. So every word has to count. You can’t afford to waste words. If you can say the same thing in five words where another writer would use 10 words, use five words. Say you are telling the story of the time you visited your uncle when you were seven and you want to describe the morning you watched through the window while your uncle went outside into the frigid air and picked up a frozen bird off the snow. In prose you might write:
I still remember how I watched my uncle from the window. It was so cold outside. He stomped through the snow in this big boots and his hat with the ear flaps. I was at the kitchen table eating the oatmeal my aunt cooked for me. Suddenly my uncle bent down and picked up a bright red bird that had frozen to death overnight. He held it up to the window in his heavily gloved hand. I pressed my palms to the window and felt its coldness. I noticed, too, that my uncle’s eyebrows had turned white with frost.
In free verse, you would take out the words that aren’t working hard to tell the story. You might say it this way:
My bald uncle was out in his ear-flap hat,
high-stepping in clumsy boots.
I breathed crystals onto the glass,
my palms pressing the thin
separation between us,
and watched his eyebrows turn to ash,
his gloved hand lift
the blood-red bird
motionless, to the window.
What happens when you condense the language this way? Well, one thing that happens is that the images just pop out from the page–the ear-flap hat, the boots, the cold glass window, his ashen eyebrows, and most of all, the red color of the bird. Writing a story in this way leans heavily on images. Our brains ascribe meaning to a hat, to snow, to a dead bird. When you read those images, your brain will put them together and make you feel cold. You don’t even have to say, “It was so cold.” Neat how our brains work, isn’t it?
Another important part of writing in free verse is to pay attention to the words you place at the end of each line. In the example above, read the last words at the end of each line, and you get, “hat, boots, glass, thin, us, ash, lift, bird, window.” See how important those words are for telling the story. In free verse, you don’t want to bury those words in the middle of a line. You want to pull them out so that a reader will spend a bit more time on those words.
It’s a fact that our eyes spend more time looking at a word on the end of the line, so put your important, imagistic words out there. Look also at how the penultimate (next to last) line is drawn away from the margin and set out to call the attention of your eye, and it’s no coincidence that the line reads, “blood-red bird”–it really gets your attention sitting out there like that. What’s the result? A clear picture in your mind of that red bird.
It’s fun to write this way, challenging ourselves to condense language and make it more powerful, to think in images and use them to tell a story. It’s always surprising to me how the smallest details can tell so much; they always give away the truth. And when you practice writing in this way, you begin to look at the world a little differently, too.
Girls with grit are fierce, independent, strong young women. They’re girls who face tough situations and sometimes don’t come out on top. They’re girls who work hard, who believe in themselves, and who try to follow their principles.
Groundwood Books’ Girls With Grit series is on Figment because each of these books is about a girl like you, or your sister, or your best friend. We’ll be featuring different books every week, so be sure to check the Figment Features page often!