Poetry or Prose? That is the question….

Image courtesy of juliejordanscott (flickr.com)

Is it cheating to introduce National Poetry Month with some thoughts on novels?  Not when the novels are written in verse—or when the novels are a series of poems that add up to a story.

At the Association of Writers and Writing Program conference in Boston on March 9, I listened to four writers of novels in verse—Holly Thompson, David Levithan, Ellen Hopkins, and Mariko Nagai—discuss their decisions about why they used poetry to tell their stories, how poetry is a good choice for YA, and the challenges for writers who choose poetry as a means of telling a book-length story.

The panelists agreed: it makes sense that poetry would be an especially good form for young adult stories.  Since verse lends itself so well to interior monologue—reading the main character’s mind—it’s easier to capture the emotional intensity that is so much at the heart of YA stories. As Holly Thompson described it, poetry is the perfect “container for an emotionally charged moment.” What could be more emotionally charged than a young person’s firsts?

Still, the panelists, admit, that most readers are scared off by poetry. They certainly aren’t accustomed to getting their stories served up as verse. It’s this image of poetry—as something “other” that the novelists recognize is both an asset and a liability. Poetry can seem something like an “artificial language” for storytelling, said Mariko Nagai. At the same time, the intimacy of poetry—a voice that comes from deep inside a speaker–can reveal complex emotions in a way that prose cannot. “Our inner selves are always more articulate than our outer selves,” Levithan said.

Several of the writers acknowledged that initially they were drawn to more conventional storytelling for novels that later turned to verse. Ellen Hopkins said she started writing “Crank” in prose. “But in prose it was my voice,” she told the audience. When she shifted to poetry, she could hear the voice she wanted–her daughter’s voice–coming through. Like Hopkins, David Levithan also said he didn’t set out to write a novel in verse.  “It just happened.” He agreed with Hopkins about the magic of poetry in helping to create character.  “Verse mirrors voice.  Character pops out,” Levithan said.

The main difference between conventional novels and novels in verse is, of course, the line breaks.  You hear a lot of talk about how the brevity of lines appeals to readers who might be reluctant, but the panelists talked about how the line breaks are especially suited to writing not just for teens, but about teens—with teens as main characters.  “Teens don’t think in novels.  They think in verse,” said Levithan.  Hopkins added that for one of her  characters, a meth addict, “form was as important as what she was saying.”  She noted that the form—the line breaks in particular—were a good way to portray the scattered thinking of an addict.  Nagai expanded on this idea by describing her use of line breaks as a way to see into her character’s minds—to show her characters pausing to think, to formulate ideas.

In addition to the breaks in lines, the authors of verse novels have an extra challenge that conventional novelists do not:  They need to consider the look of the whole page. “White space has to be earned,” Thompson said, “not overdone.” Thompson pointed out that the page turns also are “critical to the intensity of the story.”  She said, “page turns give breathing room.”  They can also stop an intense moment—this can happen at the wrong time, if the writer isn’t conscious of the page layout.  All of the writers discussed their awareness of page layout—explaining that, while they are in the early stages of writing, they must consider how the poetry will look on the page and that means revising while writing.  Levithan admits to mocking up a page and counting lines just so he can have more control over how the poems appear and where the page turns happen.

Another interesting point the panelists discussed is the idea of poetry in novels that actually look like conventional novels. They pointed to authors like Laurie Halse Anderson and Jandy Nelson who don’t use line breaks, but nonetheless are storyteller poets.  Or poet storytellers?   The panel concluded that the names of the stories—novels in verse, novels in poems, conventional novels with poetry—don’t matter.  What matters is the way the writer takes care with language, the way each moment in the story matters, and the way character jumps off the page.

Things to consider when you are writing a novel in verse:

  1. Choose verse because it suits the story and character.  All the panelists spoke about why verse suited their stories and characters, and noted that verse won’t work for all stories..
  2. Start with character.  “Character has to be every bit as convincing as characters in a traditional novel,” said Mariko Nagai.
  3. Think about a series of intense moments. Plot is important, but being in the moment is too.  The plots of verse novels rely on the concept of linking intense moments together.
  4. Use line breaks deliberately.  Ellen Hopkins said she can spend an hour thinking about a line break. Line breaks can put you into the hesitant mind of a character–a scattered mind, a deliberate mind.
  5. Think about page turns.  Where a page breaks can have an impact on the effect of the moment.
  6. Read your story aloud.  This is really important to verse novels. “Poetry is an oral tradition,” said Mariko.  It can help to read and mark your text as you hear it.  “You take on the characters as you breathe and speak.”


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