It should come as no surprise that there is more poetry in Dickens than there is in Shelley. Does that make Charles more the poet than Percy Bysshe? Perhaps so. Poets are raw souls looking into their spleens for passion, while novelists use poetry as catgut to string their violins to play their own special concerti. In fact, a novel without poetic sound and sense, in my humble opinion, is an advertisement on the back of a box of Captain Crunch.
When revising your novel, you will find sections that “do the job,” but somehow lay on the page like over-steamed broccoli. It might taste okay, but on the whole, it’s mushy and stinks. There are many poetic devices that can be employed to restore the dish to interest – too many to discuss here, and many of which should be a part of your palette, such as metaphor and simile. I will only reference seven techniques that may help a sagging section. These are:
3. rush and full stop
Gravity is the stuff that keeps us from floating into outer space. It’s also the stuff that makes us age, but that’s another matter. In the case of writing, gravity is the universal well of water that we draw upon that’s specific to an individual work. It means that when we describe stuff or narrate, we should be drilling on relational vocabulary – words that reflect our subject, or situations that repeat by degrees. This creates a solid weave to the work, one that defines overall sound and sense.
Draw on words that you have used before and are pertinent to the characters or the settings. If a character has a scar on their cheek and weeps, don’t describe the tears rolling down the cheek, but “do” describe them runneling over the scar’s arroyo. Factually, you are describing weeping, but poetically you are drawing on a metaphor for running water, and since it comes across a terrain that’s marred, gravity dictates that it should be likened to a wadi or an arroyo. Gravity also means repeating situations in layers for credibility. How many times does Tolkien give us an image of “farewell” as a person wreathed in golden shimmers fading into the distance – Goldberry, Galadriel and Arwen on three different occasions. Another example of gravity is to create doppelganger characters to ground each other, like Dickens’ Cheryble brothers or King’s multiple Jakes in multiple worlds.
Anapestic is a rhythmic device. It’s the gallop we all know from the William Tell Overture, where the stress comes on the third syllable. Ta-ta-dum, ta-ta-dum, ta-ta-dum-dum-dum. It spices things up when things get dreary and too grammatical. It’s effective in getting the reader’s attention at the beginning of sections. BEWARE: It can also highlight an amateur writer for acquisition editors. Therefore, use it with definite effect. Here’s an example:
In the apple tree’s shade, she ate a peach tart.
She sat in the shade of the old apple tree eating her peacherine tart.
With the second version, we could start an epic poem. Most anapestic can be formed by transforming a possessive into the more rhythmic “of the.” Let’s face it, would you be more inclined to read “Lammermoors’ Bride” or “The Bride of the Lammermoors” (great Scott). In order to get the anapest, I had to add the adjective “old” and transform “peach” into “peacherine,” which is not any word in my or your dictionary. As a writer, you must be prepared to invent new words that have meaning outside the dictionary. A peacherine tart is a wonderful thing to behold and eat, I’ll tell you. Then, get on with your story. Don’t turn the rest of the paragraph into a limerick, or you’ll be the only one reading it.
Rush and full stop
This is a rhythmic device born by breaking a grammar rule – that series need to be separated by a comma, the last of which needs the conjunctive “and” and then a full stop. For the most part, you should follow this rule, BUT if you want to pick up the pace and create a frenetic or enthralled sense, forget the commas and use the “and” incessantly.
She saw the feast spread before her, roast beef, potatoes, gravy and cream. Each place was set with silver plates, cutlery and cups. Every imaginable flower wreathed the candelabras. Her stomach rumbled.
She sucked in the aromas of the feast – roast beef and gravy and new potatoes in parsley sauce and almonds winking in cream and set on silver plates that shimmered in the candlelight; and around those candles were roses and ivy and sprays of lilac, all conspiring to draw her away from the wonders of the bounty and the rumbles of her tummy. Heaven.
First, the enthralled sense is created by the implosion of the “rule.” Your computer’s spell and grammar check will be barking at your “long sentence – consider revising,” to which you might consider telling your word procesor to go #$%@ . . . oh well. Too poetic. The first “boring” example lacks exciting description and lacks aroma. It’s “food” after all. It also begins with a passive sentence, which fights any sense of enthrallment. The flowers are relegated to “every imaginable flower.” Good luck there.
Now we kick it up. Because the reader expects the sentence to end, we don’t end it, which creates mental breathlessness. We don’t even stop when the clause calls for it, something my fifth grade teacher would call “a run on sentence.” Call the fire brigade, Miss Gibbs. Then, here’s the trick – full stop. A one-word sentence, which could be any word. I choose “heaven,” but we could have said “Yum,” or “Amazing.” The word doesn’t matter. It’s punctuation, that’s all.
An important use for rush and full stop is in sequeling, when the protagonist is reviewing crisis and issues in rapid succession, summarily raising the reader’s blood pressure.
Cadence, Bridge, Coda and Echo
These four devices are important to ending chapters, sections, sub-chapters or even the book. Because they come at the end, they are memorable.
Cadence is a sentence that dovetails all the emotions of the preceding section and delivers it into the reader’s heart. These take real practice to write. There’s no formula, just remember that it needs to conclude things on a soft note that tears the reader up. It could be a simple, “She breathed no more beneath the willows she loved.” Or “He gazed across the sea, the sail disappearing over the horizon. He wept.” The test of true cadence is when the phrase kicks the author in the belly. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a true cadence. Remedy – revise and get cracking.
Bridges are easier endings. They are single sentences that “bridge” to the next section. They could be as elaborate as the one’s found in Ming Chinese novels, when the narrator stops and says, “stay tuned reader, because in the next chapter Shao Lin-fa will meet his long lost daughter, but not before sleeping with her three times and” (to paraphrase Outlaws of the Marsh), “thereby several thousand people died in the blades of a thousand swords.” More likely, the bridge is a simple continuity sentence. “He turned toward the Conservatory, his watering can in hand.” It gives a sense of anticipation, and should “never” reach cadence. It could be a cliffhanger, but modern readers find these to be cliché and acquisition editors find them as an excuse to return your manuscript to the slush pile.
Codas are “add-ons,” but ones that go beyond cadence. They leap forward in the story and reveal an important piece of information that keeps the reader alert. Favorites are “The bells sounded, just like the one he heard on his death day.” OR “He left her standing in the garden. He would never see her again.”
Echoes are just that – a word or catch phrase that plays throughout the entire novel, and each time it appears, either retains its meaning or gathers additional shades. When it arrives as a closing element, its meaning is weighty – usually enough to jerk tears or at least provoke an aha! These can be words casually bantered by lovers in their prime, that become heart-wrenching torpedoes when delivered poetically as deathbed echoes. One echo I used in my novel The Dragon’s Pool is “Wham! Bam! Boom!” which, when introduced, expresses the protagonist’s jealousy that he cannot write an academic paper while his best friend is able to do it in a comic book with dialog bubbles (Wham! Bam! Boom!). The phrase gyrates throughout the entire book, each time taking on subtle shades of meaning. Then, after a frenetic action sequence, which devastates most of the principle characters, I use it as an echo to great effect and “gravity.”
In short, even you, a novelist can be a poet. In fact, if your work lacks poetry, you’re writing cereal boxes. When it comes to poetry, I am moved by:
“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”
HOWEVER, I am devastated by:
“‘Tis a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. ‘Tis a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Now that’s one Carton that Dickens did proud. Happy revising and “God bless us, every one.”