Published in Novel Advice, 2003




by Richelle Putnam


Do your descriptions tantalize the senses, filter scenes through point-of-view, and create moods for setting and atmosphere? If not, maybe it's not what you're describing, but how you're describing it.

Consider the following:

Rain falls over the Atlantic Ocean, from River Shannon to Limerick, and will probably go on for a long time. The cold wetness has made people so sick that they cough until they are breathless.  Cures are sought to ease the sickness, such as boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper.

Dull, boring, and I want to skip down and find the good part.

Now read the following passage from ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt, ISBN 0-684-87435-0, published by Simon and Schuster, copyright 1996.


Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gather to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick.  The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year's Eve.  It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks.  It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; the ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper; for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it sizzling, on the chest.


Using poetic language, Frank McCourt transforms lifeless description into a symphonic masterpiece.

Like authors, poets write to delight, inspire, and portray artistic expressions of characters, scenes, conflicts, and meditations, using symbolic terminologies to convey thoughts and impressions. While writers seem to concentrate on characters and plot, translating words into events, poets concentrate on creating images, translating events into language. Word sounds are used to achieve special effects and emotion can even be molded into an inanimate object as simple as a button. Every writer should take advantage of poetic imagery to produce sensory quality in fiction.

Jess Mock, author of YOU CAN WRITE POETRY wrote, "A poem expresses an idea, emotion, experience, or all three. It portrays a character. It describes a scene. It sings a song. It relates conflict."

Since poetry and fiction have the same purposes, why not use them together as McCourt has done in the above Angela's Ashes excerpt:

Alliteration: the repetition of identical consonant sounds: The repetitive "t" sound causes an intimate connection between the following words: out, Atlantic, great, sheets, drift, settle, city, feast, created, rattles, consumptive, it, turned, fountains, bacterial, catarrh, congested, paste, nettles.

Cacophony: combination of harsh sounds that grate on the ear. The repetitive hard "k" sound allows readers to actually hear the callous conditions in these words: created, cacophony, hacking, coughs, bronchial, consumptive, croaks, cures, catarrh, blackened, congested. 

Imagery: a word or phrase that presents sensory detail for readers to experience, appeals to sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, such as in: sheets of rain gather to drift slowly, turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges

Metaphor: figure of speech that equates one thing to another: Noses aren't really fountains and neither are lungs sponges, but these metaphorical expressions create dramatic images.

An excerpt from Melinda Haynes', MOTHER OF PEARL, published by Pocket Books, a Division of Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-77467-0, copyright 1999 accomplishes the same feat.


Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely.  The two-week bake of August sun beginning to mask its humiliation, blending the old man's emission to a color like that of rusted girder.


Poetic terms:

Alliteration: bridge, bottle, blood, barely, bake, beginning, blending.

Personification: a figure of speech, in which animals and inanimate objects are given human qualities or characteristics: "beginning to mask its humiliation." The blood mark cannot be humiliated, but this personification is utilized to create a strong, memorable point.

While the fictional events develop character and setting, they are transformed into language.

Now, let's compare a work of fiction to a poem:

Jane Hamilton's, THE BOOK OF RUTH, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-395-855502, copyright 1988:


What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts. I don't know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that's one of the mysteries I haven't solved. Yet. I always tried to close my eyes and believe that angels, invisible in their gossamer dresses, were keeping their loving vigil.


Henry Taylor's Pulitzer Prize winning chapbook entitled THE FLYING CHANGE, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-8071-1263-1,


"Somewhere Along the Way":

You lean on a fence, looking across

a field of grain with a man you have stopped

to ask for directions. You are not lost.

You stopped here only so you could take a moment

To see whatever this old farmer sees

Who crumbles heads of wheat between his palms.


Both passages denote deep emotional expression, create mood and character, introduce conflict, search for answers, and induce poetic sound. There is little, if any, difference between the excerpted literary fiction and poetry.

Okay, so we've established that poetry improves fiction, but how can writers learn to write poetically?

Try these steps:

1. Study how-to books on poetry. YOU CAN WRITE POETRY by Jeff Mock, published by Writer's Digest books, ISBN 0-89879-825-6, is a great book. Not only does it teach the essentials of poetry and terminology, but provides practice sessions with writing exercises after each chapter.

2. Read poetry aloud. Listen to sounds, rhythm, and meter. Discern how many poetry components are used in the piece? Why do you think the poet used those particular components? Revise the poem by using different components. Does the meaning of the poem change? If so, how?

3. Choose events from your fiction pieces and transform them into poetic language using word sounds with alliteration, consonance, cacophony, euphony, etc. Use personification, metaphors, and similes to make unusual comparisons.

4. Choose inanimate objects and transform them into something living like an introverted teenager or a neglectful husband.

5. Use sensory details in your journal, writing not only what you see, but hear, feel, and taste.

6. Poets are as different in style and subject matter as writers, so find a few favorite ones and let their work mentor you.

Don't buy dozens of poetry books. Literary ezines are available on the net. Here are just a few:

These sites are solely for poetry:  

Spend time at these sites reading and learning different types of poetry. Don't only learn from good poems, but from the bad ones as well. This way you not only learn what to do, but what not to do.

Poetic writing may be new to you.  Don't be discouraged if language first sounds forced and metaphors and similes sound cliché. Practice everyday. Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Soon your poetic language will be singing to the world.

Copyright 2003 by Richelle Putnam