What Can Fiction Writers Learn from Poetry?

fiction writers

Fiction writers can learn from poetry.

The following is a guest post by William Womack who also blogs at Words for Writers.

Fiction writers are scavengers. We scour daily life collecting faces and names, sharp words and longing glances, then hunker in our caves to weave tapestries from the pretty bits we’ve found. It isn’t just ideas and images we pilfer; techniques and craft are fair game too. Some of our most potent writing tools are borrowed from our poet friends.

A well-turned poem often seems close to magic in the way it telegraphs strong emotion and vivid imagery in a compact space. Fortunately for poets and fiction writers alike, magic has little do to with it. We can dissect poetry, lifting out the parts that are most useful to us.

Take for example a passage from my most recent manuscript, Last Thursday. The main character has gone for a walk along the river in Portland to sort out his thoughts when (surprise!) it starts to rain.




A pellet of water slaps the bridge of my nose. I frown at the heavens. Crap. Jerking to my feet, I scramble down the path toward my bike. The brambles around me quiver with a steady piff, piff, like bullets grazing, as random raindrops fall to Earth.

One poetic device this paragraph employs is the recurring theme. Outwardly, the passage is simply describing the onset of a storm. On closer inspection, the subtext created by the choice of words indicates something more — an antagonistic relationship between the main character and fate (or life, or God). He doesn’t just frown at the sky; he frowns at the heavens. His argument with the almighty is an ongoing motif in a number of the early scenes.

Simile and metaphor offer shortcuts to understanding by comparing one thing to another (often unrelated) thing. This is no simple rainstorm beginning, but a personal affront. Somebody’s out to get him! The character’s choice of simile, like bullets grazing, underscores his belief that he’s being targeted by an uncaring fate.

Although it’s subtle, there’s also a bit of assonance, the repeated use of a vowel sound. Crap, scramble, path, brambles, random, the A sounds set up a back-beat that draws the eye along. It’s fun to read aloud, too. A little alliteration also rears its head with random raindrops. As with any of these techniques, a dollop goes a long way.

Another thing you might notice on reading this bit aloud is the rhythm. The first two sentences are structured in deliberate groups of three syllables da da da – da da da – da da da – da da da. Again, this is subtle, but it makes for sentences that roll along at a pleasing pace.

And finally, there’s a bit of onomatopoeia, that clunker for words that sound like their meanings. My favorite from above is slaps. Not only is it visceral and sharp, but it repeats the persecution theme. I’ll make the case for the non-word piff as another example, although it invokes a bit of poetic license.

I’ve only slightly scratched the surface with these examples. There are countless other ways we can raid the poet’s toolbox to write fiction. The next time you’re casting about for an inspirational novel to get your head set for writing, try grabbing a book of poems instead.

About the Author

William Womack is a writer and graphic designer living in Portland, Oregon. He is currently working on his second novel, Last Thursday, a tale of murder and intrigue set against the backdrop of the Portland arts scene. For more of his thoughts on writing and the writing lifestyle, visit www.wordsforwriters.com.

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Comments

3 Responses to “What Can Fiction Writers Learn from Poetry?”

  1. Jay Francis Hunter says:

    I love your thought process; the way you dissected this. I find myself getting quite poetic with my writing, even when it’s non-fiction!

    Plus, I love the word assonance.

  2. I think poetry is a spectacular way for writers to improve their skills in fiction, nonfiction, even copywriting. Whether you read poetry, write it, or both, it just does something to your writing that sort of makes it shine. This is a perfect demonstration of that!

  3. Mikel Potts says:

    You know, it’s hard enough to convince aspiring poets that their is a difference between prose and poetry to begin with, and here you go blurring the lines even further.

    I can hear the excuses now. “I read this book by Mr. Womack and it sounded just like poetry to me.”

    It’s just like a fiction writer not to respect the proper literary boundaries.

    Seriously though, a great article. Thank you.