Writing in rhyme

Children love both rhythm and rhyme. Toddlers and preschoolers can’t help but groove to music that has both elements. Even we adults find ourselves tapping our toes and bouncing to the beat of whatever is coming from our car radios. Rhythm is part of our bodies’ design. God made us to respond emotionally and physically in different ways to different rhythms.

Rhyme resonates with our need for order, organization and prediction. It keeps young minds (and old) attuned to the story or song.

However, there are a few key things to keep in mind when writing in rhyme.

  • Rhyme has to be perfect—exact. No near-misses allowed. No words that almost rhyme. And try to avoid words that are pronounced differently in different English dialects. Words like again, iron, sure, either.
  • The story comes before the rhyme. That’s why I actually start every new picture book project by writing the story in prose with normal paragraphs and punctuation. It may be 1000 to 1500 words long. Way too long for a picture book! Then I pull out the sentences and phrases I love – those that create images in my head – and start building the rhyming lines from those. Once I have the story (characters, plot, setting and theme) nailed down then I can work on the poetry. The rhyme serves the story, not the other way around.
  • Rhythm is as important to rhymed verse as is rhyme. I need to be sure the number of syllables in each line follows a strict pattern. I need to be sure the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line follows a strict pattern. Any deviation will throw the whole pattern off. That distracts from the music (prosody) of the verse. That distracts the reader from the story I’m trying to relay.
  • As the writer I must feel the dominate rhythm of each sentence. Next, I hone that rhythm by word  choices and order that I choose. I search for words with internal rhyme–assonance–and         repeated consonant sounds–consonance–and try to use them strategically to create yet another layer of rhythm.
  • Of course, this becomes a cycle. I have to adjust the story, the rhythm, and the rhyme over and over again. When I change one of those elements it almost always means making changes in the other two. It takes me months or years to get all three elements the best they can be. It makes me think of a Rubik’s Cube. To solve the puzzle, you must continuously manipulate all six sides throughout the process. When the last little cube snaps into place the puzzle is solved.
  • Word order in sentences must make sense. Inverting the order of words simply to create a rhyme does not work. In “olden days” that may have been grammatically correct. But no more. Word order in rhymed verse has to reflect ordinary speech. No “On tippytoes danced she.” allowed.

Breaking these guidelines when we write is the main reason editors don’t want stories written in rhyme unless it is PERFECT. One of the main reasons they reject our manuscripts.

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