Skill 4.15: Poetic Techniques for Fiction Writers

Not for beginners—but if you’re moving to advanced writing techniques, learn these techniques and use them well.

Why read and study poetry if I’m a fiction writer? Poetry was the highest form of literary art long before the first “novel” (which means new) was penned. Every song you listen to and dance to is a poem. My students sometimes say they don’t like poetry, but they love music–there is no difference. If you love music–you love poetry. Maybe you repeat the words of songs. Unfortunately, not enough teachers expose us to good poetry as we mature; they do not teach the techniques used to create it; they do not even take the time to read it aloud in a classroom. If you missed out–you can fill the gap easily. Poetry will change your writing–and your life.

Why bother with learning poetic techniques? Because they enhance the writing. Used poorly, they produce purple prose, which is bad (defined later). I highly recommend that fiction writers read poetry. Poets are masters at saying a lot with few words, and they employ rhythm (not necessarily rhyme) and cadence or cacophony and discordance, as they desire. They craft meaning, literal and abstract, into poems. They find unique perspectives and unabashedly unique ways to express them. I have many favorites, but if you want to start out with a few, here are my recommendations: Mary Oliver (beauty in simplicity), Robert Frost (alliteration, onomatopoeia), Langston Hughes (re-creates jazz through words), Pablo Neruda (creates emotional impact). Just read one or two poems a day–always read poetry aloud. Hear the music of the words. You can also find Poetry Slams or live readings in your area and watch You-Tube videos of poets reading their work–it is mind blowing word art! Do not miss out. Leave the drums and guitars behind–hear the words alone create the music.

As an example, author Edgar Allen Poe (also a poet) uses poetic techniques in his fiction writing. Modern examples of authors who employ poetic techniques (some of them write poetry too)  include novels by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a myriad of others. Here is an example from the opening of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Poe uses alliteration, selecting “d,” which is the drum-beat sound (during, dull, dark, day). He also uses assonance: low, heavy vowel sounds (whole, soundless, autumn, clouds, oppressively, low). These sounds make a heavy beat and carry a base tone, which adds to the dreariness the POV character describes as he approaches the house.

1. Alliteration: This is using the same initial sounds of words in close proximity, if not in the same sentence. It has a sonorous effect—but do not overdue it. Use this when the time is right, like in a poetic passage where you want to create effects.

Example: One night, the wind whooshed and whistled through the winding valley.

2. Onomatopoeia: When the sounds of words create the action.

Example from Robert Frost’s “The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard”

Examples of other words: pop, crackle, hiss, fizz, zap, thud, zip

3. Assonance/Consonance: The sounds of vowels (assonance) and the sounds of consonants (consonance) to energize their writing. This is like creating music, because vowel sounds range from low to high in pitch, and consonants serve various purposes. Here are the basic sounds and a few sample sentences so show how this works.

Assonance: long vowels make a high-pitched sound, starting with “i” being the highest. Might, bee, rake, roll, pure. Short vowels and vowel combinations range from mid-range to low sounds. Film, farm, rent, mom, umbrella.

Consonance: see the list below of how consonants produce sound effects

l and r—are “liquid” sounds. They are pleasing. They roll off of the tongue. (Rest right here, lol around, roll down the hill)

m, n, ng—the nasal sounds. Also pleasing. “Mommy, rang the dinner bell. Bam, I ran from my room.)

h, f, th, v, j, dge—fricatives, create a rasping sound or friction. “Those clowns with there velvety red lips and overly white faces set my nerves on edge.”

s or soft c—a soft or hissing sound, of course: (Sunset ends the mess made of sorrowful days.)

k, q and hard c—crackling sounds. (The earthquake ignited a fire that licked the tree trunks and singed their bark. Forest limbs cracked and crashed to the ground in the wake of the fire storm.)

p and b—plosives. They explode or pop. (Bang! Pop! Boom! Black rain poured down.)

d—the drumbeat sound. (The dim day drank the last drop of sunlight)

g—a gutteral sound. (The tornado swung down, gutted our peace, gouged our landscape, and harangued our souls, then disappeared.)

t—tisk or a clicking sound. “The old house bent before it broke. Its tattered frame tumbled down, torn asunder by time.)

w, wh—windy sounds. (When the whimpers of dying soldiers wend through the wanton hills, war is done, but the world is lost.)

Purple Prose (bad writing): What is it? It is over-the-top, ornate, flowery language or language that is so ostentatious it breaks the flow of reading by calling attention to the writing. That’s bad. Even the authors I mentioned above who use poetic techniques do so to “enhance” not deter from the writing. Poetic techniques can push a novel into the “literary” genre if sustained, but even then, the poetic sentences are not so grandiose they detract from the readers experience by shouting, “Look at me–did you stop and stare and sigh at that magnificent sentence I created?” Avoid purple prose.

If you’re eager for more, here is the best book I’ve ever read on poetic techniques. It breaks down the various techniques and provides lots of examples (and great poems!) I highly recommend it for your writer’s library:

Western Wind



    Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry





That’s all of the techniques! If you need a review of any, go to the Interactive Table of Contents, which has a link to each article.

Go to Step 5: Craft Dialogue & Scenes


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