Writing in Rhyme

rhyme1Do you think in rhyme all of the time? Do your stories evolve with a rhythm to resolve? I’ve always loved the lyrical cadence of stories written in verse. And despite the conventional wisdom that rhyming books are out of favor, I can’t seem to help myself. For fellow rhyming fools like me, here are some lessons I’ve learned.

First and foremost, it’s all about the story. Like any other book, a rhyming book needs a main character with a problem to solve and obstacles to overcome. The rhyme should enhance the story, not the other way around. The master is, of course, Dr. Seuss, 100 years old this year and still as clever and popular as ever. Consider my all time favorite, The Cat in the Hat. Strip away the terrific illustrations. Peel back the engaging rhyme. What’s left? A fun and funny story about a pair of siblings who are invaded by a mischievous Cat. They must figure out how to get rid of him and all evidence of him, before mom arrives home. There you have it. A main character with a problem to solve and obstacles to overcome: the bare essence of any good book.

The rhyme should actually rhyme. Words that “almost” rhyme like end / friends, been / seen, or hand / slammed make for a weaker read-aloud. It’s important to think about regional pronunciation as well. Here in New England, “idea” and “clear” might rhyme, but that won’t be “cleah” in other locations. Nosy Crow’s excellent article on this topic considers English pronunciation worldwide, and speaks to the challenges of translating rhyming books into other languages. A really good example of rhymes that actually rhyme is the classic Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans.

Meter matters. Of the four basic meters, iamb, anapest, trochee and dactyl, it doesn’t matter which one you choose, but it is important to be consistent throughout the story. Each verse should be dead-on in terms of word stress. Having a friend cold-read a rhyming story aloud is the easiest way to realize that although the words “aglow” and “pillow” both end in “oh,” they’ll never rhyme because their stress differs. RhymeWeaver is an excellent website for the fundamentals of meter and all aspects of writing in rhyme.

Word choice is key. Easy rhymes like red / bed and may / day are fine, but a verse that rhymes galore / in store or insane / complain makes you sit up and take notice. Choosing exciting, evocative and humorous words for the non-rhyming words is just as important. Word selection that is both familiar to children and appealing to editors can be a tough balancing act. For my money, Paul Czajak does this really well in his Monster and Me series.

For those like me, who refuse to believe that Rhyme=Rejection, I recommend Dori Chaconas’ article, which delves into the elements of story, rhythm and rhyme.

Are there other rhymers out there? What’s your biggest challenge with writing in rhyme? Have you found publishers open-minded to rhyming books?

8 comments

  1. Certain manuscripts seep out of me in rhyme and I think that is mainly due to my love of performing it in Speech competitions. But, it’s so much harder to write it than simply presenting it! I know I have improved, but the only thing that truly allowed that to happen was getting it on paper in the first place. It’s okay to jump in with both feet while utilizing great resources both online and in print. (I like Rhyme Weaver, too, and this free basic starter course by Audrey Owen: http://www.writershelper.com/write-verse.html) It also helps immensely to have a great critique group with an eye for rhyme. (Wink to Paul, Josh, Kirsti, and Carol!) I’ve got my first rhymer on submission and I feel pretty great about it. 🙂 Thanks for the post, Liz!

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  2. Very good tips and resources, Liz! I’ve had luck sending rhyme directly to publishers rather than agents. I believe the hardest aspect is meter. There are so many places to go wrong. And it takes a lot of reverse engineering of critique partners’ comments to figure out what mistakes I’ve made. But with a lot of practice, it gets easier and easier.

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  3. I really appreciate this post! I am an incurable rhymer – from making up parodies of popular songs to creating rhymes that helped me (and my roommates) pass my exams in college, it’s just something I do without thinking about it. I started messing around with a rhyming PB text earlier in the year “for fun” and can’t stop coming back to it. If you could see the looks of the other parents as I wander around outside my daughters’ lessons snapping and nodding my head to test out meter… I’m 98% sure it’s ready to share with the world – so I guess my next step is finding agents who don’t run in fear when confronted by verse!

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  4. I love this post, Liz! I’ve written one rhyming manuscript and it was so tough to get everything right–meter and stress and frankly, I’m pretty sure I still don’t have it right! I admire those of you who think in poetry!

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