Do you love writing in rhyme, but don’t know your iamb from your elbow?
Guess what? You’re not alone. Plenty of writers approach rhyming texts instinctually — without being fluent in the fundamentals of metrical structure or systems of scansion.
Just as there are “plotters” and “pantsers” in novel writing, we rhyming picture book folks may be similarly sorted out to scanners vs. scribblers. Scanners can identify poetic meter in seconds flat, dashing off slash-and-breve notation with dizzying precision. Scribblers rely on their ear to “hear” the beats of a line, and go with what sounds right.
I’m more of the latter. I studied poetry in college, but am woefully out of practice when it comes to analyzing metrical structure. I don’t open up a file on my computer and say, “I think I’ll try this one in dactyl hexameter.”
But after my rhyming story is roughed out on the page, an essential step in my revision process is to go back and scour the manuscript, line by line, to make sure every word scans perfectly.
So what the heck is scansion, anyway?
Scansion is the process of identifying stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. When a trusted critique partner or editor says a line isn’t scanning correctly, it means that a word has been forced into an unnatural role, with the stress (or accent) on the wrong syllable. Or, there isn’t a consistent pattern of word stress within the sentences of a stanza to guide the reader.
If you ask someone to read your text aloud and they stumble, it signals a scansion problem. Here’s where a little slash-and-breve work can be helpful. Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in each line as they would be in the dictionary, and compare it to where you are putting the stresses when you read it. Where the two don’t match up, revise.
A brush-up on the basics (for the scribblers among us)
Meter: An arrangement of words in patterned units
Foot: A unit of meter with one stressed syllable, and one or more unstressed syllables. Lines are named according to their number of feet.
Monometer: one foot
Trimeter: three feet
Tetrameter: four feet
Pentameter: five feet
Hexameter: six feet
Some common poetic patterns of syllabic stress:
Anapest: two short or unstressed syllable followed by one long or stressed syllable (unstressed/unstressed/stressed )
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (stressed/unstressed/unstressed)
One berry, two berry, pick me a Blueberry.
Iamb: a short syllable followed by a long syllable (unstressed/stressed)
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
Spondee: two accented syllables (stressed/stressed)
Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.
Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (stressed/unstressed)
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Combining syllabic stress patterns and number of feet in a line is what gives us metrical structure.
The good news is, you don’t have to be able to recite these definitions to write rhyme that scans properly. But like my grandma always said, “It helps to know what you don’t know.”
Mapping meter and scansion encourages us to approach revisions to rhyming text methodically. When you can identify metrical patterns — the established rhythms and beats of your text — then you can also identify when you stray from those patterns. If breaking from the established pattern is intentional (and effective), then stick with it. Otherwise, revise.
Say you are writing a rhyming picture book about a young girl collecting ingredients from her garden to make a savory pie for her family.
Here’s a sample stanza:
Crispy carrots, onions, peas.
Fresh produce is plucked with ease.
No need to tug, or yank or pull.
Just dig and SNIP!
Now my basket’s full.
So, apart from being, well… all around pretty bad, there are big problems with word stress and scansion in this stanza. The most glaring being the word “produce” would be pronounced “pro-DUCE” in the current meter. Produce is a homograph (a pair of words spelled the same way, but with different meanings) rendering the line nonsensical, or at the very least, confusing.
Taking it line by line, the first line of the stanza is trochaic; then we have the word stress issue in the second line, then it switches to iambic at the third line… and the result is a bit of a muddled meter mess.
Looking at the stanza holistically, there are other issues beyond scansion. “With ease” is a weak rhyme. (Let’s make a promise to each other: if we find ourselves having to throw in “with” anything — ease, glee, delight, fright — to make a line work, we’ll revise it, okay? Good. I’m glad we had that chat.)
Also: “tug,” “yank” and “pull” all mean the same thing, which makes the line feel forced, and doesn’t serve the narrative. And to get really nitpicky (see what I did there?) peas are “plucked” from a low growing vine, while carrots and onions are dug up from the ground. Any vegetable gardener worth his or her salt knows this. It’s important to be precise and credible. Kids are especially good at sniffing out discrepancies like this in picture books. So are editors.
Okay, so evidently I’m a little more of a scanner than I thought. But in truth, I think anyone dedicated to writing successful rhyming picture books is both a scanner and a scribbler. We rely partly on metrical study, and partly on cultivating a well-tuned ear.
Either way, with practice, you will begin to wield meter to do all sorts of wonderful things in your stories—to add humor, build tension, capture a mood, and otherwise DAZZLE with your daring (but disciplined) verse.
Anika Denise is the author of several critically acclaimed books for young readers, including three illustrated by her husband, Christopher Denise: Baking Day at Grandma’s, Bella and Stella Come Home, and Pigs Love Potatoes (Philomel). Publishers Weekly pronounced her latest picture book, Monster Trucks, “a mash up made in heaven,” in a recent starred review. Coming soon is Starring Carmen (Abrams 2017); The Best Part of Middle (Henry Holt, 2018), and a few more she can’t mention yet — but is super excited about. Anika lives in Rhode Island with her husband, three daughters, overgrown vegetable gardens, pesky squirrels, and a slew of imaginary friends. Visit her online at anikadenise.com and on Twitter @AnikaDenise.