By Helen Docherty, author of The Snatchabook and The Storybook Knight
I’m going to start with a confession: I never actually set out to write in rhyme. The first stories I wrote were in prose. But when the idea for The Snatchabook came to me – and it came pretty much fully formed – the story itself seemed to dictate that it should be written in verse. I knew that I had to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery, and to draw the reader in from the very beginning of the story. Writing in rhyme seemed an effective and natural way to achieve this.
One dark, dark night in Burrow Down,
A rabbit called Eliza Brown
Found a book and settled down…
When a Snatchabook flew into town.
This opening 4-line stanza is written in monorhyme (the last word in each line rhyming with all the other last words) for a specific purpose; to foreshadow the events of the story and to link the two main characters, Eliza and the Snatchabook (who will, of course, eventually become friends). The first and fourth lines introduce an element of suspense, suggesting to the reader that something scary is about to happen. The middle two lines, in contrast, present an image of cosy domesticity; however, the fact that they are enclosed by the first and fourth lines warns us that Eliza’s bedtime routine is about to be disrupted. Monorhyme should, in general, be used sparingly (to avoid becoming tedious), but it can be an effective device in the right place.
The rest of The Snatchabook follows the more conventional AABB rhyme scheme:
In every house, in every bed,
A bedtime book was being read.
Tales of dragons, spitting flames;
Witches, playing spooky games;
Pirates, on the seven seas;
Princesses, trying to sleep on peas.
From a personal perspective, I find this rhyme scheme (and meter) quite lulling – suitable for a bedtime story. It seems to encourage a slow reading, with each line being savoured. Of course, the pace can be upped for moments of high drama:
She threw the window open wide
And shouted to the Thing outside:
“Stop stealing all our books, right now!
Just give them back, I don’t care how!”
Within the constraints of a rhyme scheme, you can always try to surprise the reader with an unexpected rhyme. For example:
[And so, the Snatchabook began]
To give back all the books he’d picked.
Eliza Brown was very strict.
Incidentally, in the original (UK) version, I’d used ‘nicked’ – a colloquial British term for stolen – rather than ‘picked.’ Some words get (literally) lost in translation!
The Storybook Knight (which was in the 2016 Best in Rhyme Top 10 List) employs a different rhyme scheme (ABAB, or alternate rhyme):
Leo was a gentle knight
In thought and word and deed.
While other knights liked fighting,
Leo liked to sit and read.
I find this rhyme scheme more conversational and a little jauntier than AABB, so it felt more suitable for the story of Leo, forced to undertake a quest by his pushy parents. I particularly like the way that the final rhyme in each 4-line stanza can deliver a punchline, or subtly subvert the rest of the verse:
One morning, Leo’s parents said
They’d like to have a chat.
There was nothing wrong with reading,
But he couldn’t just do that!
They’d seen an ad that morning
In their favorite magazine.
A dragon needed taming!
Leo wasn’t very keen.
When I start writing a new story, there is often a particular rhyme (and not necessarily the first) that comes into my head, and which then dictates the rhyme scheme of the book. For example, when I had the idea for Abracazebra, the story of a goat who is jealous of the zebra who arrives in his sleepy village and starts performing magic shows (to everyone else’s delight), I started with just two lines:
Abracazebra? I smell a rat.
You can’t trust an animal with stripes like that!
As the story took shape, new lines grew around the original two, which actually come about two thirds of the way through the story:
So he started to whisper in people’s ears,
Conjuring up their darkest fears:
“Abracazebra? I smell a rat.
You can’t trust an animal with stripes like that!
You don’t see stripes on a pig or a cow…
…So why should we welcome stripes here now?”
Like The Snatchabook, Abracazebra follows the AABB rhyme scheme, but with more syllables in each line. Sometimes, it can be fun to add a twist to a rhyme scheme. My latest rhyming story, You Can Never Run Out of Love (out September 2017) is written in a simple ABAB rhyme scheme, but with a refrain that follows a different pattern, with an internal rhyme (call it CCD). Here is an example:
You can run out of time.
You can run out money.
You can run out of patience,
When things don’t seem funny.
You can never (no never, not ever)
You can never run out of LOVE.
By breaking with the original rhyme scheme and introducing a refrain, the central message of the story is reinforced, and the key word (love) is given its own, un-rhymed status. When reading the story aloud to elementary school children, I’ve found that they naturally join in, saying the word ‘love’ at the end of each refrain; and I think that the rhyme scheme encourages them to do this.
Finding the right rhyme scheme for each story can be tricky, but it’s also fun and ultimately satisfying, as is finding the right words to rhyme. Good luck if you are writing your own rhyming story!
Before becoming an author, Helen used to teach Spanish and French. She also has an MA in Film and Television Production. Helen has lived and worked in France, Spain, Cuba and Mexico, and now lives in Swansea, Wales, with her husband, the author and illustrator Thomas Docherty, and their two daughters.
Her first rhyming story, The Snatchabook (illustrated by Thomas Docherty), has been translated into 17 languages. In 2014 it won an award voted for by school children. It has also been staged as a play and even as an opera, by a school in Canada.
The Storybook Knight (2016) is Helen and Thomas’s latest book together. Helen’s next rhyming story, You Can Never Run Out of Love (illustrated by Ali Pye), is coming out in September 2017.