How to Write
Find your Story
To write your own ballad, you must begin by establishing your story. So free-write, as I always say. Start in a general direction and detail the events in your narrative. Feel free to wander off on tangents. Dwell on particular details. Write and write until you've created original descriptions. Remember that great storytelling involves making your reader feel involved. Don't just tell them what happened, but immerse them in your sensory world.
This is a good time to break away from your normal notebook routine. Get a large easel or a sheet of butcher paper. Use a white-board or a chalk-board, but please take a picture before you erase. Give yourself a large space to write. Splash your plot, setting and characters across it.
Now find what's important to your narrative. When telling a story in verse, you have limited words, so be concise. Have a clear line of plot. Select very few central characters. Know what sensory details support your theme. Scrap everything non-essential.
Choose a Form
While stanza length and rhyme scheme are your choice, historical balladeers have formed a few patterns. Stanzas have often been four, six or eight lines each. Sometimes authors have varied the length of stanzas within a work. Rhyming has commonly been ABAB or ABCB with lots of near-rhyme and sight rhyme. Some writers have used refrains or other repetition.
Take your favorite small piece from your free-writing and see what form it wants. Maybe you have a great beginning. Let that segment tell you stanza length and rhyme scheme. Definitely read your work aloud. This is a piece of oral communication as much as a piece for the page. It needs to sound right. Also, it's a song, so some sort of repetition should carry the reader or listener along.
The Challenge of Dialogue
Writing a poem about a conversation is quite tricky. Using a limited number of syllables and a restrictive form makes clear dialogue challenging.
First, limit the number of characters. Any more than two speaking at once is nearly impossible for your audience to discern. Clearly establish a brief name or title for each. In my Cathartes Aura series, almost no one has a name longer than one syllable.
Second, keep your speech tight. Boil each character's words down to the bone. Be punchy. Chop extraneous stuff. Also, only deliver the most telling details about facial expressions, body language and motion.
Third, consider alternating stanzas between characters. Allow your audience to get used to your pattern and style.
Long but not Too Long
What will you do with this poem? Are you preparing it for a school assignment? Check with your teacher on the length requirements.
Do you plan to recite it at an event? Beware not to stretch it out too long and bore your listeners. Almost every live poetry reading has a time guideline. Don't be the one who brings a five-minute poem for a three-minute slot. Also, don't rush it too fit time. Better to have two minutes of verse and take your time, allowing for audience reaction, than read too fast and lose your listeners.
Do you intend it for print? Know your plot-line and tell your story at the right pace. Don't spend too much time on one section. I use the old five-act play format. Have your introduction, body and conclusion fit in equal measure. Place your tipping-point and climax in the right places.
- On a large sheet of paper or other broad space, free-write about a dramatic story.
- Establish your two main characters. Detail their backgrounds and motivation. Write a distinct voice for each.
- What symbols and themes contribute to the meaning of your narrative? List them and keep the list handy.
- Choose a stanza length and rhyme scheme, then rewrite a passage with a different form.
- Select a line or phrase that defines your story. Find a way to repeat it in your work.
- Once you've written a draft of your ballad, rewrite it with a different narrator.