Using Poetry Techniques to Polish Your Fiction

Today’s guest post is by John Smith, a blogger and aspiring writer.
Go check out his blog on writing!

A few years ago, I took a creative writing class that involved writing a 40-line poem. After finishing the poem, I went back and reread it. And you know what? It sucked. It felt like I just wrote a one-paragraph story and broke it down into 40 lines of text. There was no rhythm or sense of emotion. There wasn’t even a single, simple rhyme. I realized that I had no concept of poetry.

At first I didn’t care. I was never going to publish a poem. However, after the poetry assignment, our professor transitioned our lessons to writing short stories. Once he showed us how poetry can be used to write stories, I realized at least some level of poetic skill is needed to write great novels.

Let me tell you the two things I learned in that poetry lesson.

1. In a poem, every word counts.
Every … single … word. Poetry is like a 14-page story conveyed in 14 lines. Each word must express the mood and meaning, and gives it a certain impact. These words are called “energy” words. For example, let’s say you’re writing something about waking up and getting out of bed.

Ordinary, no impact:

I got out of bed

Now let’s try it using words of “energy”:

I exploded out of bed  or  I crawled out of bed

Each word counts. A single word can hold a lot of meaning and evoke the entire mood of a poem. This same concept applies to writing short stories and novels—you can build mood in a scene, dialogue, description, or chapter by careful choice of words.

2. Metaphors and similes can help you “show, don’t tell.” Using metaphors and similes also engage the reader’s imagination and pull them deeper into the scene. Let’s say you’re writing about someone about to die:

She looked sickly and close to death

This writing directly tells the reader that the character is dying. Let’s add a simile to show instead.

Her eyes peered at me like someone already in the grave.

As you can see, using techniques like similes and metaphors can add more impact to your writing. They can also draw more attention to it, so don’t use metaphors/similes unless the moment calls for it. Otherwise you may be overwriting.

I learned other things from my poetry lesson, like rhyme and rhythm, but if you take just these two things, and apply them to your fiction, they will improve your writing.

Interested in exploring more how poetry can improve not just your writing, but your creative life? Check out Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen.

Or, start following Robert Brewer over at Poetic Asides.

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One thought on “Using Poetry Techniques to Polish Your Fiction

  1. Linda

    Hi John… Good points. Every word counts is probably the single most important thing I’ve carried over from poetry to fiction. You mentioned rhythm, and I wanted to add that it’s good to read your work aloud, as most poets do since they read in public. It helps you to spot those clunkers. I believe we process what we read in the same way, and it makes a difference.