Better Get Your Meter Right or You'll Look Like a Neophyte
Everyone says, “Don’t do it.”
“No one will buy it.”
“No one will rep it.”
And yet many writers are lured in by soothing rhythm of it. The bouncy musicality that lives in wonderful, sing-song stories. There is, however, one piece of advice I heard time and again that I believe to be true.
“If you’re going to write in rhyme, it’d better be perfect.”
Sure, there are stories out there with less-than-perfect rhyme and meter. I’ve pulled books from the shelves, stumbled over lines, and wondered how they ever got published, too. But after querying countless agents and editors with rhyming manuscripts—and finally getting one sold—I have to say I agree. The field is so competitive. If you’re a debut author with dreams of being a published rhymer, then, how do you write a perfect story? Well, you can start of by knowing two basic rules:
Story first. Great rhyme can be magical, but without substance, it’s meaningless. Before you write a story in rhyme, know where you’re going. Is it a concept book? If it’s character-based, does it have a story arc with rising action, tension, a climax, and a satisfying resolution? An emotional arc? A blue page? An unexpected twist? Are your characters compelling? Does your language flow naturally? Don’t let the rhyme lead the way.
This second rule is a doozy—know your poetry lingo. Do you know what I mean when I say meter? Feet? Rhyme scheme? Scansion? Rhythm? Lazy or forced rhyme? If yes, then great! Go forth and write that rhymer! If not, though, read on…
A great rhyming picture book is never about just great rhymes; it’s far more often about great rhythm. And when people say that a story has great rhythm, they’re talking about the meter. Because of that, I’m going to focus on meter in this blog. That said, if you’re going to write in rhyme, be sure you know what those other terms mean (rhyme scheme, scansion, etc).
In poetry, there are five types of meter that can be used: iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests, and dactyls. That said, most picture books use only iambs or anapests. Each unit of rhythm is called a “foot.” Let’s break down iambs and anapests using examples:
Iambic meter uses a two-syllable foot, comprised of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like this: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. Consider the following example from Deborah Underwood’s brilliant picture book, INTERSTELLAR CINDERELLA:
She zoomed past stars and nebulae, and parked beside a moon.
The space parade was glorious! Each starship made her swoon.
First of all, I want to point out that Deborah is a rock star at rhyme; you won’t
hear her rhyming “cat” and “hat.” I mean, “moon” and “swoon?” How fun is that? But with regard to the meter, you can hear the repetition of seven iambs in each of the lines (I’ve bolded the stressed syllable in each foot). When there are four feet in a sentence, you’d say you have iambic tetrameter; five feet would be pentameter, six hexameter, seven heptameter, and so forth. Because Deborah has seven feet in each sentence, she’s written in iambic heptameter. Let’s try another example from my debut, CAN U SAVE THE DAY:
So E took off; things went awry,
and all the horse could say was, “Nigh!”
Can you hear the iambs (da-DUM, da-DUM)? How many are in each sentence? Can you therefore figure out what kind of meter I’ve used?
I’ll wait here while you figure it out.
If you said iambic tetrameter, then you’re right! Let’s move on to anapests.
Anapestic meter uses a three-syllable foot, including two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like this: da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM. Consider the following example from Chris Van Dusen’s IF I BUILT A HOUSE:
My house will be different. It can’t be the norm.
I’ll think about traffic flow, function, and form.
You might notice that the first foot in each line has only one unstressed syllable; that’s ok. It doesn’t affect the rhythm because the stressed beats are clear and he doesn’t venture away from the structure frequently. Since there are four stressed beats in each line, Chris has written in anapestic tetrameter. You can pick up pretty much anything he’s written and find a brilliant example of a picture book written using anapests.
Meter is incredibly important for rhyming picture books. It’s awkward if you force your reader to emphasize a syllable that isn’t emphasized in natural speech. As you can see in Chris’s example, it’s often fine to drop or add an unstressed syllable in a foot, but if you drop or add a stressed syllable, the meter will break…and the book won’t sell. Perfecting meter is probably the toughest part of writing in rhyme.
Just a couple words on rhyming itself before I wrap up: when you rhyme, be creative—but RHYME. Rain and again do not rhyme, for example. Neither do found and cloud (though this is a great example of assonance). Words that sound similar but do not rhyme are called slant rhymes, or near rhymes, and they won’t help you sell a book that’s supposed to rhyme. But they can be lovely in lyrical prose. Likewise, you want to avoid forced rhymes (which Julie Hedlund hysterically calls “Yoda rhymes”). These are examples where you change the structure of your sentence just to make a rhyme work.
If you’re in a sticky spot, use this structure, you should not.
Bottom line: if your heart is screaming that you should rhyme, then don’t listen to the naysayers. Rhyme away! This business is so tough, you need to stay true to yourself.
But be careful not to sacrifice the story—or the meter—in the process.
Shannon lives in Louisville, KY, with her best friend and husband of 19 years, Greg, and her two beautiful miracles, Maria “Cassidy” and Tye. They have a chatty parrot named Prozac, a mini Holland lop named Thumper, a miniature Aussie named Copper, a ginormous Maine Coon named Simba, a tiny kitten named either Nugget or Crookshanks (depending on who you’re asking), and too many fish tanks. Outside of writing, she is a singer, a songwriter, a pianist, and a guitarist. Shannon is represented by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio.
Do you have any questions about this post? Shannon would LOVE to answer them! Feel free to leave a question or comment and she'll respond!