One thing I’ve never been accused of is being spare with my writing. Novels-in-verse are my go-to for lessons in how to use just the right number of words to tell emotionally satisfying stories brimming over with heart and eloquence. Enjoy this post from 2017! – Kristi
craft review by Kristi Wright
I’m a prose writer through and through, but I love stories told in verse. Novels-in-verse are constructed as a series of poems, with each poem typically a unique chapter. The poem series still demands a narrative arc–complete with rising action, climax and resolution–and character development remains as important as ever. But verse differs from prose with its spare, lyrical language and use of white space. It happily sacrifices parts of the story to the reader’s imagination in an effort to draw a more immediate emotional response.
As a prose author I’ve learned a lot about telling a story from studying those that use this poetic format.
Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon is an exquisite example of a novel-in-verse. Set in 1969, the novel centers on Mimi Yoshiko Oliver, a half-black, half-Japanese seventh grader who struggles to fit in when she moves from a diverse community to a mostly white town in Vermont. Dreaming of being an astronaut, Mimi defies current norms by entering science competitions and opting for shop class rather than home economics. Hilton’s choice of historical setting gives Mimi both racial and gender problems to overcome.
TRIMMING DOWN TO THE MOST CRUCIAL SCENES
Novels-in-verse skip the build-up, striving to bring readers as quickly as possible to the heart of a story. They use precise, descriptive and sensory words to home in on pivotal moments for the character.
Marilyn Hilton starts her story with Mimi’s thought:
“I wish we had flown to Vermont
Instead of riding
on a bus, train, train, bus
all the way from Berkeley.”
In one sentence, four lines, we learn that the main character is on a long, arduous trip. In the next few lines we find out that it took six days, but the alternative would have been too expensive, which gives us a picture of their economic situation. Later in this spare 51-line poem, Mimi fills out paperwork, revealing not only her unique ethnicity but a bit of her personality as well:
“I check off Black,
cross out Oriental,
and write Japanese with a check mark.”
Hilton’s chapter-poem, “First Night”, ties together Mimi’s difficulty sleeping and her career aspirations–in elegant poetry:
“I toss and turn
and can’t find a comfortable spot to sleep in.”
Here is the spot where Mimi’s dreams of being an astronaut are revealed:
“Stars–bright, cold, voiceless–
are winking, but I know that’s because Earth’s heat
the atmosphere is shifting.
(A future astronaut needs to know these things.)”
Buzz Aldrin’s Moon Walk, 1969
Throughout the novel, Hilton uses her poetry to get to the heart of Mimi’s emotions. Her 7-line poem, “Bad Dreams,” that follows one of the low points in the novel, couldn’t be more expressive about Mimi’s current feelings:
those bad dreams
that make you glad
they were only dreams?
I could wake up
from bad days.”
Action: Give your prose maximum impact by thinking like a poet whose precise, descriptive and sensory words bring you straight to the heart of the story.
BECOMING A METAPHOR NINJA
In Hilton’s chapter-poem “Vermont Neighbors,” Mimi describes the people of Vermont in a poem that bursts with metaphor.
“I used to think the people of Vermont
were like the snow–
and slow to thaw.
But now I think
they’re what’s underneath.
Like the crocus bulbs making flowers all winter…”
She ends the poem with the conclusion that,
“The people of Vermont
do their hardest thinking
and their richest feeling
so no one can see.”
Mimi has grown to understand the character, not just of a place, but of the people who live in it. And Hilton’s metaphor is perfectly tuned to the geography of Vermont, a place where winter is “crusty, chilly and slow to thaw.”
Action: Anchor your metaphors in your story’s world. When possible, use them to show your character’s emotional growth.
EMPLOYING A CIRCULAR STRUCTURE IN YOUR PROSE WRITING
Hilton’s chapter-poems often employ a circular structure. They begin in one place, then journey away from that place and then circle back to the beginning, though frequently with a twist. It’s an elegant approach that can be used to great effect in prose writing as well.
The first chapter-poem of the novel is a shining example. As a reminder, it began with Mimi’s wish that they could have flown rather than taking trains and buses. The ending circles back with her imagining that they are flying:
but I close my eyes
and pretend we’re flying.
The driver is the pilot
and every bump in the road
becomes an air pocket in the sky.”
Another short chapter-poem that perfectly illustrates this concept is called, Winter:
sounds like winter in Vermont:
Snow taps the bare trees
Flames sing in the fireplace
Mama’s slippers scuff the floors
The Teakettle applauds to a boil
Hot water pours into a cup
And Papa’s ‘Quiet please. I’m grading papers.’”
I love the circular motion in this chapter as well as the way that “Quiet” is used to both describe the setting and give us insight into Papa’s character.
Another chapter-poem called “Science Project,” starts with Mimi’s teacher showing her a book about lichen as a possible topic for her science project. But Mimi wants to do her science project on “The moon’s topography and its phases.” The poem ends with Mrs. Stanton offering to give her a book on the moon. It begins with a book and it ends with a book, but it’s not the same book.
The circular motion of Hilton’s poems provide us with a sense of completion, a momentary “ah” factor.
Action: Look for opportunities to start and end your chapters with a circular motion with a twist.
What novels-in-verse do you love? How have they informed your writing?
If you enjoyed this post, here are two more craft posts looking specifically at novels-in-verse:
Kristi Wright (co-editor) writes picture books and middle grade novels. Her goal as a writer is to give children a sense of wonder, a hopefulness about humanity, and a belief in their future. She is represented by Kurestin Armada at Root Literary. She is an active volunteer for SCBWI and a 12 X 12 member. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.