by Sherry Shahan
While cleaning out my office I unearthed a shoebox filled with letters from a friend who served in Vietnam during the tumultuous 1960s. I spent hours poring through his astonishingly truthful accounts of this war. I knew I had to do something with his letters; after all, I’d kept them nearly 50 years.
Since letters inspired me to write Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 (Authors Guild Back-in-Print Edition, 2020), it made sense to incorporate journal entries, notes, and letters into the narrative. I then began writing sketches about other high school friends and some of our more histrionic experiences. Once I began scribbling, memories assaulted me twenty-four-seven.
The difficulties facing today’s teens aren’t that different from those faced in the 60’s in Purple Daze. Issues with parents, relationships, love and loss. Young people are still breaking away from authority and convention, still forging their way into an unknown future.
Free verse is itself a type of breaking away, since the form breaks free from traditional metrical poetry. Likewise, novels in verse depart from traditional narrative prose. Most teens are emotional and self-absorbed. To me, condensed metaphoric language on a single page mirrors their dramatic, tightly-packed world.
While this worked for my characters, when should you consider this structure?
- Stories that are better told from more one than one character’s point of view. Mel Glenn’s YA verse novel Who Killed Mr. Chippendale? has more than fifty viewpoint characters. Even if Glenn had used an omniscient viewpoint — in other words, bouncing in an out of every character’s head — it could confuse the reader. Note: Not all novels in verse have more than one viewpoint character.
- Stories that are predominantly character driven, as opposed to action-driven. Verse novels tend to deal with highly charged emotional issues. Issues such as incest (Furniture by Thalia Chaltas), mental illness (Stop Pretending What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones), teen pregnancy (First Part Last by Angela Johnson). In each of these novels, what the characters ‘think’ and ‘feel’ is more important than what they ‘do.’
- Stories with poetry as a subplot or theme. In Locomotion Jacqueline Woodson’s main character is exploring poetic forms to help deal with the untimely death of his parents. In Ron Koertge’s Shakspeare Bats Clean Up the main character is bedridden. He’s a bored kid who reads his dad’s poetry books and then begins writing his own poems.
- Stories that are best told in short, energetic bursts — instead of traditional margin-to-margin prose. This can include scenes that capture a single moment whether it be an emotion or an idea.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in creating my verse novel: Each of my six main characters required his or her own story arc — with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end — yet their individual stories had to be interlaced into the whole. Free verse seemed the most effective way to give readers access to the characters’ innermost thoughts.
My motel sign:
This prose poem is only two lines, yet it says volumes about Ziggy’s fragile emotional state. Perhaps more than if I’d written it in margin-to-margin narration.
Try this exercise: Take a paragraph from any work of fiction. Rewrite it in verse. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, imagery and cadence. Shouldn’t all good writing contain these elements? Sure. But I find it easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.
We’d love to see your verse based on the exercise above! We encourage you to share your free verse paragraph or any questions you might have about free verse by commenting on this blog post or tweet us by tagging @SCBWISOCALLA.
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Sherry Shahan has nearly 40 books to her credit. She’s ridden inside a dog sled during Alaska’s Iditarod (Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod), kayaked down a glacier-studded fjord (Frozen Stiff), escaped a deadly lightning storm (Death Mountain). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Images provided by Sherry Shahan.