Columns > Published on April 13th, 2023

How Poetry Can Help You Strengthen Your Novel

If you find yourself feeling stuck or uninspired while writing a novel, turning to poetry may not be your first choice to break through writer’s block, but it can be an invaluable tool. After all, poetry is an ancient art, shared through song and oral recitation before it was ever written down. From epics to blackout poetry, and from odes to modern slam, this form of communication continues to evolve and change. Poetry as a method of storytelling has been in our blood for thousands of years.

Whether you’ve written poetry before or are beginning to dabble, there is a world out there to explore through a poetic lens. You can follow the rules of a villanelle or blank verse, or develop your own method through free verse. Do what speaks to you as a writer, and explore some of the below ways poetry can help strengthen your novel.

As mentioned, poetry has been a part of our human experience for centuries. It provides an incredible way to continue honing skills for all types of writing. Whether your characters are human or otherwise, you can play around with poetry to help build layers.

Writing exercise: Choose a character from your novel or a project you’re working on and write a poem from their point of view. What word choices would the character make when writing a poem? Consider their vocabulary or what they might write down on a page versus telling someone aloud. Where do they draw inspiration from? What is so precious or so haunting to them that they’d write a poem about it? Would they write realistically or in more abstract terms? Rhyme or no rhyme?

Poetry has been a part of our human experience for centuries. It provides an incredible way to continue honing skills for all types of writing.

There are endless choices to consider. If you take five characters and have them all write a poem, you should end up with five unique poems, so really take the time to think about the choices your character would make in this scenario. Dig deep into their head, and this exercise may in turn inspire you to think about other decisions the character would make. Peel the character back until their nerves are exposed. That is where their poetry originates.

It's important to remember how subjective writing is in the first place. Authors have different styles, and poets certainly do, as well. What one writer or reader considers “purple prose” (writing that is overly flowery or ornate), another might consider to be lyrical or lush. I do think a balance exists; for example, if the meaning of a moment becomes lost in paragraphs of description, then remember to go back to and tighten the language. While such balance may be guided by personal preference and rules waiting to be bent or broken, a critical eye is still needed. Some examples of novels with beautiful prose that succeed in not having the meaning lost within lush language are Deathless by Catherynne Valente, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.

Don’t be afraid to get poetic with your prose. Think of how a poem can capture so much about a scene or a moment in a short period of time. With prose, there is more room to explore. We can look to poetry for inspiration on cadence, on how emotions are captured, and how the senses are explored.

Poetry teaches concision and how to convey a big emotion in a small burst of time. I love when a relatively short poem manages to explore the sensorium and succeeds in reminding us how important the senses are.

Take a look at this poem by Sylvia Plath titled “Blackberrying.”

In the poem, there are of course examples of striking visuals, but the other senses are what really brings this piece to another level. While reading the poem, we can imagine the feel of smashed berries staining our fingers, the scent and taste of salt from the nearby sea mixing with the sweetness of the berries, the sound and feeling of the wind slapping us in the face, and so on. All of these senses are included in a subtle, descriptive way, bringing forth a powerful and poignant scene.

Writing exercise: Find a moment in your manuscript lacking sensory descriptions. Don’t just tell the readers something like, “The room was bright red. It smelled like metal. The room was dusty.” That’s a pretty awful way to describe what a character notices when walking into a new place. Maybe they would compare the red paint to a stop sign. Maybe it reminds them of the time they ran a stop sign and hit a deer. The senses can unlock a memory as a character breathes in the air of the space, remembers the hot stench of asphalt and blood, how loud the tires screeched, and so on.

Every time you sit down to write, the poetry in your blood hums.

In addition to the senses, bringing life to the setting in general can be vital to any manuscript. Don’t just think about particular scenes, but consider what the overall atmosphere has to say. How deeply does the setting affect the character’s wellbeing? I have a poem in The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, told from the viewpoint of Chicago as serial killer H.H. Holmes arrives into town. In addition to having fun creating the poem and exploring the setting as its own character, it also inspired me to get creative with viewpoints in general for longer works. Poetry is the perfect place to try something in writing that you might not ordinarily do, and then use the experience to continue to grow in your craft.

Writing exercise: Write a poem from the point of view of the setting. Does your novel take place in a busy city? An abandoned mansion? Some unknown spot in the woods? A story’s setting provides the chance to determine the tone and mood, but it can also alter a character’s entire path and the choices they make. It’s easy to get invested in the characters and plot, but neglecting the setting is a missed opportunity. Writing a poem from the viewpoint of what the setting has witnessed over time, of what the trees have overhead or of what has bled into the asphalt of city streets can add so much to a story’s depth. Think of how different a poem from the perspective of Hill House (from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) would be from the viewpoint of the open waters in Amity where Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws takes place.

Over time, I’ve heard people say they don’t like or “get” poetry, which is fine, of course, but I’d like to think there’s a poem out there for everyone. The world of poetry is endless, from speculative to memoir and every subject in-between. Even if you experiment a bit with poetry and never let anyone else read those words, then you’re still opening up your mind and broadening your craft, which is what makes writing so exciting. I hope the next time you find yourself stuck while writing a manuscript, you give one of these exercises a try. If you don’t feel ready, then simply read poetry. Read the classics. Read and support contemporary poets. Read whatever type of poem makes you feel like it was written just for you.

Every time you sit down to write, the poetry in your blood hums. It’s been a part of us all, long before we had computers or typewriters or even cave drawings, and I hope the beauty and inspiration of poetry long outlives us, too.

Get The Devil's Dreamland at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Sara Tantlinger is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes. Along with being a mentor for the HWA Mentorship Program, she is also a co-organizer for the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter. She embraces all things macabre and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Instagram @inkychaotics.

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