Beyond the novel-in-verse: Other ways to use poetry in fiction


Writing a novel-in-verse is easier for me than writing straight prose simply because poetry is the natural way I express myself. It’s my go-to form. It’s where I feel most comfortable. So it makes sense that the first novel I got published was a novel-in-verse, even though I’d written several “normal” novels before that.

But verse novels are just one way to use poetry to help tell a story. There are other ways.

One is by using a poem you’ve written as a prompt. This is how I came to write my first picture book.

Published in Moody Monthly, July/August 1989

Published in Moody Monthly, July/August 1989

I changed the age of the narrator of this poem, expanded the moment into a day, and came up with an entirely different telling of the same story. That’s how Cups Held Out was born.

Another way to use poetry to help tell the story is by interspersing it with the prose. Elizabeth Wein did this in her novel, Rose under Fire. She is such an amazing writer of prose that, for some reason, I wasn’t expecting her to be equally as amazing in her poetry. Shouldn’t there be some kind of trade-off? But no, her poetry floored me as well.

Often a poem that captures the essence of the story is put in front of the novel. This is what I’m attempting to do with the sonnet at the beginning of my novel-in-progress, Three Prayers.

Intertwined picture2

Using poetic elements (such as metaphors, similes, alliteration, repetition) in a story almost always makes the prose better. Here’s an example from Goodnight, Dragons.

similes, repetition, rhythm

similes, repetition, rhythm

Many years ago, I wrote a novel with a narrator’s voice some readers found unlikeable. Trying to fix the voice, I used the exercise of writing the novel in verse instead. It changed the voice entirely, made the narrator not only more likeable, but touching. And in changing the voice, it has changed the story. Unfortunately, I no longer know how the story ends, but I’ll get there eventually.

Poetry will take me there.


About Judith L. Roth

When I was about ten, it occurred to me that books are written by people and I was a person. I could create my favorite things–I could write books! I got a B.A. in English. My first poem was accepted for publication before I graduated. I had some success with poetry, but my real dream was to write fiction for children. My first fiction piece was accepted about 25 years after the first submission. Things you might want to know about me: I know how to persevere. I’m a third-generation California native, living in Indiana. I have two remarkable sons who are now young men,and a husband who’s supported my writing for over three decades. I love cats and currently have three of them. I love being near water–oceans, lakes, rivers all work for me. Chocolate is probably my biggest downfall. I’m exceptionally curious. (Or nosy, as my family calls it.)

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