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No matter what kind of writing you are looking to improve, from prose to screenplays and everything inbetween, an understanding and appreciation of poetic techniques can take you to the next level. Often when we write we are trying to communicate, as simply as possible, our characters and our story. But we’re constrained by the rules of grammar and sentence structure and the format we’ve chosen to write in. Poetry has no constraints. The creative freedom granted by poetry allows us to exercise our creative cores, strengthening our writing and breathing new life into it.
This post will detail some of the ways in which writing and reading poetry can strengthen our writing skills in other areas. Even if you’ve never enjoyed poetry and have no intention of ever pursuing it as a creative outlet, you can use poetry as an extra tool in your writer’s toolbox.
Our characters, if they are well written, are complex beings with conflicting emotions and motivations. In order to show these to the reader we have to put them in situations where these emotions and motivations are brought the front. If our main character, let’s say his name is Jack, is claustrophobic we can’t simply say so, we have to have him experience that claustrophobia in front of us.
So we write a scene where Jack gets stuck somewhere, perhaps in a cupboard or an elevator. It gets the job done, but it’s not a desperately interesting scene. Here is where we can employ metaphorical thinking, as we would in poetry. We could think about claustrophobia and what equivalencies we can find in the way Jack thinks. Perhaps he values freedom, his claustrophobia just being a manifestation or metaphor for a fear of losing freedom. How he reacts to being in an enclosed space may be the way he reacts to being forced to do something against his will. Then again, his claustrophobia may be a metaphor for his anxiety, always needing an escape route because he assumes something will go wrong and he wants to be able to get out as soon as it does.
These extra traits linked through metaphor to his claustrophobia make his fear of enclosed spaces more poignant and relevant to the fabric of who he is. Now if you want to write a scene where Jack gets stuck in an elevator you can link it to him facing his need for freedom or him battling his anxiety.
So what we’ve done is taken a character trait and thought about what other traits we can draw parallels with. Do that a few more times and you have a collection of traits that play off of each other and follow a central theme. That’s basically how you compose poetry, linking ideas with metaphor, and that’s also how you can add depth and coherence to a character’s traits.
Imagery is often underutilised outside of poetry. This is a shame as something as simple as word choice when describing a moment can greatly affect how it is imagined in the reader’s head. Imagery is any figurative language in prose, so includes metaphor and simile most commonly. It can change a moment from a dull necessity to an emotive and memorable scene with little effort.
Consider the following: “Daisy looked out at the fields before her and had a sudden urge to run and play.” What do we know after reading that sentence? We know that there are fields in front of Daisy and that she suddenly had an urge to run and play in them. That’s pretty much it, exactly what it says. Maybe we can infer that Daisy is playful, or enjoys nature, and that the fields look nice.
However, inject some imagery and we get this: “The fields sprawled out before her, inviting her in with the promise of sweet-scented flowers and butterflies to catch.” This says so much more. She doesn’t just have a sudden urge to run and play, the fields are inviting her and it is irresistable. They sprawl out, evoking images of long summer days perhaps during summer holidays. We learn that she loves nature, she is tempted by the flowers and the butterflies, perhaps she remembers her childhood summer holidays playing in the fields for hours on end.
Of course, imagery can be used for any emotion, so to make a haunted house scarier or a villain more menacing or a love interest more alluring. It is to be used with caution, however. Imagery should be reserved for the highly emotive moments in your story. When your character discovers her best friend has died, use imagery to describe those moments to make them charged. When two characters sit down for coffee, as they regularly do, he should not be sitting on “a wooden embrace for his buttocks”.
Lastly, there is meter. In prose we can think of this as sentence or clause length along with word length, and the variance in it. In screenplays we can apply an awareness of meter to the dialogue to help give our characters unique voices. In poetry we use meter to provide rhythm. There is no reason why attention to meter can’t give our prose and our screenplays the same rhythm and flow in the same way it does for our poetry.
To be clear, you don’t need to count syllables. The best way to achieve good meter is to read it out loud. Does it sound a little stunted? Add a word or two. Does it sound a little stretched? Shorten the sentence, maybe split it in two. Use shorter words for a more punchy rhythmic sound, longer words for a more flowing high-headed sound. “The dart struck him in the back. Blood spread on his shirt.” is sudden, violent, whereas “The projectile arced through the air, puncturing the target. Blood started dripping, spreading out like a puddle on his back.” sounds like a far more glorious, heady moment, drawn out in slow motion.
The choices are very intuitive, we all have an innate rhythm that we use in language every day, so it’s very easy to do if you pay attention to it. A proper study of meter while reading and writing poetry can help you take it to the next level by imbuing your language with real memorability and poignancy for use during those key moments in your story.
And that’s about it for this post. Hopefully you will take away some ideas for how you can improve your writing with poetic techniques. Has employing these techniques helped you improve your writing? Leave a comment below. If this has been helpful please follow, like and share and if you want to you can also subscribe via email to get these posts delivered straight to your inbox. And if you would like to get updates via our newsletter you can join our mailing list.
Oh, and keep writing.