Oil And Vinegar, Not Oil And Water

Oil and water don’t mix no matter how much a person might try. On the other hand, oil and vinegar have properties that allow them to blend temporarily. When shaken together, along with all the appropriate spices, they can create a delicious dressing, a delight for the palate.

Poetry and fiction work the same way. Yes, they are separate entities and mostly stay in their own literary niches, but there are times and ways that the two can come together to enhance a story. Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to discuss ways in which poetry can make fiction better.

One obvious instance occurs when a novelist includes poems or songs in his work. J. R. R. Tolkien utilized numerous songs in Lord of the Rings — from those Tom Bombadil sang to the ones Bilbo wrote as part of his story and those the elves sang on most occasions.

Besides incorporating poems as a whole into fiction, an author can utilize poetry’s various parts to spice up his prose.

Poetry, as you may know, is constructed using a number of sound devices and/or a number of imagery devices. It is these that can give prose a boost, taking it beyond the mundane and making it fun, insightful, or even beautiful.

Sound Devices

Many people think of rhyme when they think of poetry. This is certainly one of the sound devices poets may use, but it is not the only one. Others include alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, even repetition.

Rhythm is probably the most popular device used by novelists. When poets utilize rhythm they are trying to create a pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables, such as you hear in nursery rhymes or children’s songs:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Novelists who pay attention to rhythm, however, utilize variety and flow more than patterns. Not only should a line say what the novelists wants it to say, but it should sound the way she wants it to sound.

High energy action scenes use shorter sentences. Fragments even. Leisurely scenes may consist of longer sentences and paragraphs filled with description or reflection, utilizing parenthetical material, perhaps — whether created by using em dashes, parentheses or even a colon. The key is, the rhythm of the sentence fits the content and the context.

When appropriate, an author may incorporate alliteration — the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words:

They muscled the boat to another bend, but as they navigated the curve the vessel rammed to a stop with a heavy clunk.

Consonance is similar but limited to the repetition of consonant sounds and not limited to the beginning of a word.

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

In the same way, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

Onomatopoeia — the formation of a word from the sound associated with it — is another common device. In the earlier line above, the word clunk is an example of onomatopoeia.

None of these devices occurs with as much frequency in fiction as in poetry, and when an author does employ them it should be with purpose. The sounds should strengthen the picture that the meaning of the words has already created.

Imagery

Creating these word pictures can be more effective with the help of poetry’s devices: similes, metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperbole, and so on.

Similes and metaphors create comparisons between two usually unrelated objects for the sake of amplifying a particular trait of the item being described. Similes do so in a more obvious way by announcing the comparison with a preposition — like or as.

“His hair like moldy hay,” part of a line from the poem “The Highwayman,” makes an effective, and announced, comparison. On the other hand, “The serpentine road crawled to the top of the rise” doesn’t declare, the road was like a snake, but instead shows it. Both create vivid word pictures.

Personification gives human or organic properties to inanimate objects. Even phrases like “the heart of the tale” utilize personification.

Symbols stand for and represent something else. In A Christmas Carol the chains Marley’s ghost carried around represented his sins from his greedy life.

Hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration for effect. Example: The swarm of crows blackened the sky.

When using these imagery devices, a novelist should stretch to create ones that fit his characters and setting rather than relying on common ones already in existence. Many of these have become cliches.

In summary, good prose — lyrical prose — will utilize some of the same devices that poetry does. One way to become more familiar with these devices is to read poetry. Another is to write it.

What devices do you purposefully use in your prose? Have you done so because you write poetry or have you learned to do so because of what you read?

If you’d like to learn more about poetry, Owl Editing has an interesting page on understanding poetry — organized a little differently and in more depth than what I’ve presented in brief here.

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