Stories in Poem
Writing Verse novels and verse stories
We are all very familiar with the traditional prose novels that dominate our lives and our libraries, and even our favorite NetFlix movies. And we are equally (perhaps) familiar with poetry, that unfortunately many avoid for both good and bad reasons. Mostly bad, we’d say, as you need to take your time with poetry, and most are too impatient these days.
I (Anneliese) grew up loving poetry, but not just any kind of poetry, more the type that transported me to another world that told at least a little bit of a story or captured a slice of somebody's life or thoughts. I then spent a few months as a Twitter poet, trying to tell stories, or capture a slice of emotion in as few as 40-50 words. [Posting anything larger was a guarantee to not be read on Twitter]. Was well known with thousands of followers for a short time, before being hounded by trolls and suitors and turned upon by friends, who mistrusted my desire for privacy and anonymity. (I left and went back a year later as somebody else, somewhat half-heartedly and less socially.) Little did I know that, in that somewhat traumatic process, I would find a kindred-spirit writing partner, and we would try to delve into the challenging writing of long verse novels and stories.
Of course, little about verse novels/narratives is actually new, although many look upon you with shock (and not much awe) for breaching the prose-novel tradition. [Maybe they even want to wash their hands after talking to you, LOL.] But, epic poetry, like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf were around long before the modern novel, mostly due to the connection with music and perhaps because it was easier to memorize poetry than prose back when people mostly couldn’t read. It was in the 19th century, however, when the verse novel began finding its own identity, first with Lord Byron’s controversial (now acclaimed) Don Juan, and later with writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning with Aurora Leigh. I’ll spare you most of the history, but today the verse novel is growing in popularity and recognition, proving to be an art form that is versatile and creative and unpredictable.
So… why would anybody want to write a verse novel?
Prose forms of novels and stories are quite flexible, working well in 1st or 3rd person perspectives, optimal for conveying plot movement, and action, ideal for writing with a lot of dialogue and complex character development. And, indeed, many authors write with such skill in their prose that there is certainly a significant poetic beauty to their work.
OK, you can stop reading now if you're completely convinced that prose is the best. But maybe you'll never know what you're missing.... just saying.
Verse novels, on the other hand are a good vehicle to use for capturing a different perspective (particularly in the 1st person), a more poetic one, on life, on the inner thinking of a character, and emotions, but most importantly verse novels involve a sparsity and precision of word use that often leaves more to the imagination. Poetry certainly captures the heart in a way that prose sometimes does not. That's a good thing sometimes, heart and imagination, right? Plot can be challenging to move in a poetic manner without being a little annoying or disruptive. 1st person helps here with inner contemplation/observations serving as the narrator to move the plot.
In addition, dialogue can be awkward in verse novels, so the writer often needs to find other ways to capture character interactions and character development, using very minimal dialog. Selection of words is based not only on meaning but also by sound and connotation that can impact the emotions of the reader and create a different kind of atmosphere. There is a lot of attention to detail, word by word, line by line, break by break, and even the white space of the page can become a part of the story. Fun, free, and creative.
Formatting on Vocal remains a big challenge for poetry however. If only the Vocal Folks would read Formatting and the Beauty of Poetry.
Below is an example of an acclaimed verse novel that we show for the purpose of illustrating the difference between verse- and prose-novels. It's an early chapter, not one of the later dramatic chapters ... and not the chapter with 16 words that wrench your heart. We picked it because it is a fairly normal chapter.
From Ellen Hopkins. Crank . (Margaret K. McElderry Books). Kristina Snow is the perfect daughter: gifted high school junior, quiet, never any trouble.Then, Kristina meets the monster: crank. And what begins as a wild, ecstatic ride turns into a struggle through hell for her mind, her soul—her life.
Bone-oven hot outside,
swamp-cooler cool three
feet up the hallway,
temperature in Dad’s
The bed was a monstrous box
spring. Thin, mildewed foam,
two sprays of Lysol, and one
thrift-store sheet were all
that lay between Bedzilla and me.
Tried my right side. Kept
seeing the kitchen
cockroach, the one I
tried to pretend was
only a Mormon cricket,
Tried my left side. Flashed
on my bedroom at home.
Pin clean, pretty in
mauve, a ballet of pink
butterflies on the walls,
pillow-top mattress to die for.
Flopped onto my back. Found
the keyhole behind my eyes,
squeezed through, into sleep.
Not slumber, but sleep just this
side of waking, where dreams
fuse with reality.
Now, here's an alternative prose styling (with some editing license to prose-ify. Forgive us Ellen for this liberty we take.):
It was bone-oven hot outside Dad’s house, and even with the swamp-cooler cooling just three feet up the hallway from the tiny and claustrophobic guest room, the temperature was lukewarm at best.
My bed was a monstrous box spring, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. The thin, mildewed foam on the top, two sprays of Lysol, and one thrift-store sheet were all that lay between Bedzilla and me. It would be a toss-and-turn night.
I tried sleeping on my right side, but I kept seeing the kitchen cockroach, the one I tried to pretend was only a Mormon cricket, just big because it was Los Alamos–grown. I also tried my left side, and it wasn’t any better. I flashed back to my bedroom at home, clean as a pin and all pretty in mauve. It had a ballet of pink butterflies on the walls, and I had a pillow-top mattress to die for.
I flopped onto my back and somehow found the keyhole behind my eyes. I squeezed through it, into sleep, not slumber, but sleep just on this side of waking, where my dreams fuse with reality.
Perhaps you see it, perhaps you don’t. I'm young and creative (only 27) and Pernoste is, um, somewhat old and incredibly wise... sorry, P, for the backhanded compliment... LOL.... and we both see it. [He may never let me control the keyboard again for final edits, haha.]
There is a beauty in the words and the brevity and conciseness of the original verse (though we are dying to change a couple of the line breaks which [we feel] disrupt the flow just a bit). Still... beautiful. Even the prose adaptation (with some license in added words to better turn it to prose) has a beauty in the language.
We see differences, though. The narrator of the verse version seems more introspective, seeing the world differently than others... felt in how you are forced to speak and how you see the page. The narrator of the prose version, in comparison, is interesting, and with a sense of humor of sorts, perhaps more sense of humor than in the verse version. However, the pacing of the words in your mind, where you break, and the feel of the story changes significantly. If it had truly been written as a prose novel, this chapter would likely have been considerably longer, with much less left unsaid and much more descriptive prose.
Our favorite general types of free verse novels/novellas (our own simple categorizations):
1. Each chapter is a different verse, telling a different part of the story (different characters or same characters in a different scene). Not always in chronological order, but often in “emotional” order. Together the chapters paint a novel. Example: Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson.
2. Enigmatic and spare: Chapters each in poem, each differing significantly in style, and so spare in the language that the story only comes fully together in the end. Novella example: The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan.
3. Engrossing stories of personal development/destruction (like Crank by Ellen Hopkins)
4. Full-length verse novels, historical fiction like Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and especially science fiction … harder to find sci-fi, but we include our own Pernoste & Dahl’s “In the Minuses”. Generally, such longer forms have greater consistency of format and form, but not exclusively so. We haven't read everything. Haven't liked everything we've read, either... though admiring the creative effort.
The challenges you face with a verse novel can be outweighed by the achievement of beauty in the writing, which is deliberately spare (again, generally implying more than is said).
How can you introduce the nuances of your character? How can you move the plot along without deviating fully into prose? How do you handle necessary dialog, or do without it?
Don't expect much for conclusive answers from us. We're still experimenting. Always willing to chat though if you're on Twitter. (AnnelieseDahl @intheminuses or [email protected])
Anyway, the fun is in finding your own way to something unique, and … yay… there are no real rules, except the one we follow:
It has to be better in verse form than collapsing it to prose formatting, meaning it has to make sense to do a verse novel approach.
The difference is in the control over the voice in the readers’ heads as they read, controlling when they pause, when they breathe, and the pace at which they follow the story. Does it help? Does it add a different dimension to the story?
You may have to face this scenario, however. A friend of Pernoste’s said to him about our verse novel…. “Wow, this was really good. Maybe you should turn it into a prose novel.”
Kinda like saying,
“I really liked your musical, except for all the singing and stuff.”
Some of our verse stories on Vocal, if you're interested in critiquing their worth:
MISCELLANEOUS VERSE STORIES
Synesthesia - our personal favorite
Finding Ways - our second personal favorite
Fall on me - not a verse story, but the beginning of the story
Annie’s Story - not a verse story, but with integral poetry
when the bright dawn was magic for us
About the Creator
JD Pernoste and Anneliese Dahl
Pernoste is a scientist, poet, and artist, and Anneliese Dahl is a young reclusive poet. Now exploring stories in verse novel format. Check out "In the Minuses".
Twitter: [email protected]
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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AMAZING KEEP UP THE GREAT!!!!!
Your profound understanding and love for verse novels resonates deeply with me. It's incredible how these poetic narratives have the power to transport us to another world, to stir our emotions, and to captivate us with their unique rhythm and musicality. Your description of the sparsity and precision of words, the attention to detail, and the creative use of white space on the page, the so-much-in-between-the-lines left for the imagination of the reader, all contribute to the symphony of your storytelling. I must confess that your verse novels have often left me in awe, as they beautifully blend the art of poetry with the depth of storytelling. The way you navigate the challenges of character development, plot progression, and minimal dialogue in verse form is truly remarkable. It's like listening to a harmonious melody that dances with our imagination, allowing us to experience the story in a way that prose alone simply cannot achieve. Your dedication to pushing the boundaries of this art form and finding your own voice within it is both admirable and inspiring. Your words have the power to move hearts, to paint vivid pictures in our minds, and to create an atmosphere that lingers long after the reading experience ends. Thank you for sharing your passion for verse novels and the invitation to embark on this journey. I eagerly await your future verse novels, knowing that each one will most likely blow my mind and leave an indelible mark on my soul. 💚
Excellent article. Epic verse novels intrigue me. Prose is a like a voice in your head. Verse novels are like a play. 🥰
This is something I've dabbled in myself. It's such a unique medium that makes you consider your words even more carefully. Yet, when done well, it's beautifully brilliant.
Your words flowed effortlessly, weaving vivid images and evoking a range of emotions within me.
So interesting. I am not familiar with the medium enough to have a conversation, but it is definitely an intriguing art form. Thank you for sharing your ideals and love for the subject. Also, I do love your 'A fish out of Pancakes' poem. 💞
Great article, and taught me something new. I'm not very knowledgeable in writing I'll be honest, so I didn't know stories can be written in verse. I do know poetry can sometimes paint stories, and I have done that before (I think...), But I don't think I can write a story fully in verse, without it being either too convoluted or disconnected. I love poetry, and telling a story within it, but in a limited number of lines. I think it's definitely a nice challenge to have as a writer, to write a longer story in verse, but I don't think it would win out over prose for me because I love the world building done in books, which of course can be done in verse, but not in as much detail.
Great read. 👍 I admire the advocacy and the fascination.
See…. This is some top notch stuff right here. Not much beats learning about a new genre/vehicle for wordcraft. I loved the tone of the article too. Fantastic!
I enjoyed these insights into different types of poetic marvels and prose, great work congratulations on top story!
Bravo, Anneliese, and congrats on your Top Story! 🥂 I love Ellen Hopkins so much! Her book Identical was my first free verse novel, and it blew my mind. I also love Blue Suburbia: Almost a Memoir by Laurie Lico Albanese. It’s a memoir told through poems, and I reread it at least once a year.
I really enjoyed this discussion and the background too. I’ve read some of “In The Minuses” and that was my first exposure to the style. It does seem like it would be quite challenging, for me anyway❤️
Oh, this was so fascinating! Thank you for sharing this!
Thought-provoking. I feel a nudge, though I'm not sure it's enough to move me from my currently leaden position.