How Poetry Can Help Fiction Writers

The art of story telling through poetry is nothing new. The Greeks told stories both to preserve their culture and entertain, and later generations used oral storytelling often set to music or even told poetically through meter and rhyme. The poem-like format of these stories assured that the tale stayed in both the mind of the speaker and of those in his audience.

Here are some specific ways that embracing poetry can improve your storytelling

1. Poetry Opens Your Mind to Possibilities

Today, it seems that poetry and fiction are two distinctly different genres. But fiction writers should remember that poetry, once almost interchangeable with storytelling, can be a helpful way to open your mind and refresh your writing. If you flip through a poetry anthology, you may be surprised to see that there is no one poetic format. You will, of course, find poems in traditional verse like the sonnet, written in fourteen lines of ten syllables. However, you may also find prose poems written in paragraphs, or even visual poems, arranged to resemble the things they describe.

The point is that there’s no one way that a poem “should” look — and there’s no one way that fiction “should” be. Though publishers will require that the format of your manuscript adhere to certain standards, the content of your fiction can be whatever you want it to be. You can tell a story through letters, in the format of a diary, or even include some snippets of poetry, perhaps written by a character.

2. Poetry Can Help You Pay Attention to Detail

A well-crafted poem is like a puzzle: each aspect is deliberate and works toward a unified purpose. Poets use line breaks to force the reader to focus on a specific word or image, to create a sense of suspense, or even to make a poem more pleasing to the ear. A poet may even spend hours pondering punctuation, wondering, for example, whether a period or semi-colon would be stronger — or even whether to use punctuation at all!

Though a work of fiction will usually be much longer than a poem, it can be helpful for fiction writers to consider their work as a puzzle, too. Of course, not every scene in a book will be action-packed, but every scene can, and should, serve a purpose, even if it just establishes a setting or a backstory. Each element of your well-crafted piece of fiction should develop the story you want to tell.

3. Poetry Can Help You Capture Images in an Unusual Way

William Carlos Williams, a famous poet of the imagism poetry movement, once said that there are “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes, the entire idea of a poem is only to describe a thing. One only needs to look as far as Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or Ezra Pound’s haiku-like poem, “In a Station of the Metro” for proof. And while a work of fiction will be more than just a description, it is important that an author be able to completely and originally describe the people and places in his story. Fiction writers can look to poetry for original and beautiful descriptions of everyday happenings and objects.

The next time you find yourself wondering how to describe a blue-eyed beauty or the setting sun, read some image-heavy poetry (again, Williams and Pound are a good place to start, and Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery should not be forgotten, either), and then try to imagine that you’re writing a descriptive line for a poem. You may be surprised to see that the line you come up with is more original than what you might have otherwise written.

Many writers already know that the more you read, the better you write. But the next time you’re looking for inspiration, turn to poetry. If you’re not sure where to begin, start online; there are plenty of websites, like, that offer downloadable anthologies of poetry.

Happy reading, happy writing, and good luck!


Jolene Paternoster is a Write to Sell Your Book Expert Team Editor specializing in Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy and Women’s Fiction.  A published poet, she has appeared in several online publications and has edited a collection of poetry.

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