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Writing in Rhyme

pj lyons

Recently an editor invited me to submit a story sample written in verse. She had seen and liked a manuscript I had written for a board book. “I want a story in verse, but good verse,” she said. In this essay I will establish some parameters by which to judge picture book texts that tell a story in verse. Since these books have a plot, the first rule is:

1. The story should stand on its own without the rhymes.

While it may be the details in a poorly written book in verse that draw the most attention, it is important to look at the big picture first. Does the text successfully tell a story? Or does it end up being just a series of rhymes strung together? A story needs to have characters, plot, tension, and resolution. As a beginning writer I attempted to write a story in verse. The comment I received from my writers’ group was that, though some of the rhymes were clever, they were made at the expense of the story and left the reader confused as to what actually happened. A good rhyming picture book is a story told cleverly in verse: the tale is served by the rhyme—not directed by it. Being written in verse doesn’t give a story license to break the rules of good writing. This brings us to the second rule:

2. A story told in verse must meet the same standards as a story in prose.

A good story, whether in prose or verse, must be well written. Is the point of view consistent? Are the verb tenses consistent? Does the story begin when the ordinary changes to the extraordinary? Does each line and scene move the story forward? Does the story build to a climax, quickly reach a resolution, and then end? Is there an unexpected inevitable ending? Is there an underlying theme? A book in verse must fulfill these requirements and rhyme as well. If a good picture book sings, then a good picture book in verse sings and dances.

The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet meets these requirements. Peet tells us who is the main character: “When Katy Caboose rambled down the train tracks;” and what she wants: “Often Katy would wish that she someday could be/ Something quiet and simple like a lovely elm tree.” The story builds to a climax: “On down the grade she flew faster and faster/ Straight for a curve and certain disaster.” The story comes to an unexpected inevitable end: “The caboose became caught in a very tight squeeze/ Between the tall trunks of two evergreen trees.” And all the loose ends are tied up: “At last she was free, just as free as the breeze,/ And how Katy did love it up there in the trees.” There is an underlying theme of being content with what one has while striving to reach goals. This is a story delivered in rhyme, not rhyme awkwardly trying to carry a story. The rhymes are clever, provide good detail, and work well, as in faster/disaster. Which brings us to rule three:

3. Avoid slant rhymes.

Even if a picture book in verse succeeds in telling a story, there are other ways in which it might fail. The most glaring flaw is a forced rhyme. Rhymes can be forced in various ways. One way is when the words don’t really rhyme.

I looked for my dog, but he was gone

I wonder what I did wrong.

Gone and wrong don’t really rhyme; this is called a slant rhyme.

4. Avoid awkward word order for the sake of rhyme.

The second way to force a rhyme is to rearrange standard word order.

I look down and my dog I see

Wagging his long shaggy tail at me.

Normal word order would be “I see my dog,” but dog doesn’t rhyme with “me,” and the Bad Verse Shuffle ensues.

5. Verbs must be appropriate to the time line.

The third way to force a rhyme is alter the verb.

I looked around and I did cry

My dog ran away, but why, oh why?

 The first verb is active, simple past tense. The second verb changes to a compound verb of “did cry” rather than the simple past tense “cried.” But “cried” doesn’t rhyme with why, hence the shift.

When used sparingly, this technique doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. But if overused, or used without consideration to the story line, it has a tendency to lend a comic air to the verse.

6. The rhymes must make sense.

Another way to force a rhyme is to use a word because it rhymes even though it doesn’t make sense. This is related to the rhyme controlling the story.

I love my dog and my dog loves me

We scratch each other’s back.

Fido likes to lick my knee

My mom has gone to pack.

Why does the dog licking the kid’s knee make the mom go and pack? This is the rhyme wagging the tale, rather than the tale commanding the rhyme.

7. The meter should be consistent.

Another common weakness in poorly written verse is a breakdown in meter. Meter is the rhythm of poetry. To discuss meter, we must first review the terms.

The primary element of poetic rhythm are stressed and unstressed syllables. When the stressed and unstressed syllables occur in a repeated pattern they establish a meter. The four main meters are:  Iambic - /   Trochaic / -   Anapestic - - /   Dactylic / - - with “-” representing an unaccented syllable and “/” for an accented syllable. Each grouping of these symbols is a “foot” and each foot is usually separated by “|”. The number of feet in a line is indicated by the terms: Mono meter (1), dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pantameter (5), hexameter (6), and heptameter (7).

A common problem in poorly written verse is inconsistent meter. If the poem starts in a meter, then it should continue in that meter. It’s not wrong to vary meter; there are even terms for variations such as spondee: a two-syllable foot of two accented syllables and pyrrhic foot: a two-syllable foot of two unaccented syllables. But these variations should be the exception to an established rhythm. The following example begins with iambic meter, loses it.

  -   / | -  / |

When Fido walked

   -     / | -   / |

On Mommy’s bed,  

 -   / |   -  -   / |

He left lots of hair

  / |   -   / |

Here and there.

Inconsistent meter can be a distraction and detractor in a poem. At the opposite end of this spectrum is The Caboose that Got Loose, in which Peet consistently uses Dactylic 

(/ - -) meter to give his story the feel of a chugging train.

  -  |  / -  - | /    -  -  | /    -   - |  /

“When Katy Caboose rambled down the train tracks,

 - |  /  -    - |  /   -   -  |  /  -   -   | /

The engines were steamers with puffing smokestacks.

 - | /   -  - | /   -   - | /   -  - | /

She was a caboose who disliked being last

  -  -  | /  -   -   | /   - | /    -  - | /

With an endless black cloud of smoke rolling past

  -  - | / -  -  | /  -  -   - | /    -     -   / |

“It’s not only too smoky,” the caboose would complain,

   -    - | /    -   - | /   -  -  | /  -   -   |  /

“There’s the jerks and the jolts of this noisy freight train.”

8. Don’t make the meter too consistent

While inconsistent meter is undesirable, so is overly-consistent meter. In requesting some sample verse, the editor mentioned she didn’t want anything sing-songy. But she couldn’t explain what made a piece sing-songy, only that she could recognize it when she heard it. I quizzed children’s librarians and children’s bookstore clerks and received the same answer. There may be other factors that contribute to a piece feeling sing-songy, but certainly one way is meter so perfectly consistent there is no variety or pauses. Peet avoids being sing-songy in the above example by dropping the two unaccented syllables at the end of each line, which creates an end stop or pause.

I don’t believe good poets sit down and say, “I’m going to write a poem in dactylic tetrameter today.” Poetry is like music. You write it with a conscious ear to its sound, and use the tools of analysis if something doesn’t work to assess why. As in music, the definition of good can vary according to a person’s taste. Bad is much more easily recognized and agreed upon. In this essay I have identified some major errors I hope to avoid when writing picture books in rhyme.

Works Cited

Peet, Bill. The Caboose Who Got Loose. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.