How to write rollicking rhyming stories
Squishy McFluff author Pip Jones with the best advice on writing stories that rhyme – and the golden rule is never, ever sacrifice a story for a rhyme!
Friday 1 July 2016 12.00 BST
On the day started I writing my first children’s book, Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat! I didn’t deliberately set out to write it in rhyme. It just happened.
The first line that popped out was: “As Ava played out in the garden one day, when the air was all foggy, the sky rather grey…” I realised straight away that if I split the sentence, I had a perfect rhyming couplet. That set the scene for the rest of the book, and now I’ve written six of them, each one up to 2,000 words, all written in rhyme.
I’ve always loved writing rhymes, even as a little girl. It’s not only fun, you can also get a huge amount of satisfaction from finding the perfect rhyme to tell a joke or move the story along. It’s not always easy though. Sometimes it can take a lot of thinking to get a line just right.
Writing a good rhyming story is a bit like doing a jigsaw. When I begin, I know what the whole story will be (so that’s like the finished picture) and I have to put the pieces (or the words) together in exactly the right way to make everything fit. Just as it would be with a jigsaw, you can’t shove a piece into a place it doesn’t fit because otherwise, in the end, the picture will be wonky.
For some people, writing brilliant rhyme comes naturally – but for other people, practice makes perfect. Here are my top tips for writing a rollicking rhyming story.
1 Read rhyming books
Authors always tell people who want to write that they should read, read, read! But we say it for a reason, because whatever sort of story you want to write, reading other people’s books is like giving your brain a writing work out. Reading will give you lots of ideas, help you instinctively know which words to use, and arm you with the tools you need to create stories that work.
In particular, when you want to write rhyming stories, reading rhyme somehow puts a rhythm in your head which will help you. You know what it’s like if you sit for ages in a room that has a loud, ticking clock? When you leave the room, for a while afterwards, you might still hear that clock in your head. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. It’s the same with rhyme, and this is GOOD! This is what you need to prepare your brain for writing rhyme.
You might notice that lots of children’s rhyming books are written in rhyming couplets, or sets of two lines where the last words of each line rhyme with each other. This is a nice simple type of rhyme to begin with.
2 The story should come first
When you’re writing in rhyme, it’s easy to become obsessed with finding the ending words that go together. But if you concentrate on the rhyme more than you do on the plot, you’ll probably end up with a story that doesn’t feel all that satisfying. It might not have a good focus, or make sense, or be as entertaining as it should be. The rule to remember is: the story is just as important as the rhyme.
Here’s a slightly silly example (which I just made up!) showing how you can easily sacrifice the focus of a story for rhyme:
Here’s a dungeon, oh so scary.
Don’t go down there! Please be wary!
You must NOT wander in the dark,
Especially not if you’re a shark!
The first three lines set up a story, which has focus. Oooh! It’s all about a scary dungeon! Too scary to enter! But then… hey, what the lollypop is a shark doing in this rhyme? A shark especially shouldn’t go in a dungeon? Huh? It makes no sense! The only reason the shark shows up in this rhyme is because it goes with ‘dark’. But it makes you think, ‘errrr…’ and by that point, you’ve forgotten all about the scary dungeon! The shark has sacrificed the story for the rhyme. Let’s get rid of it.
You must NOT wander in the gloom
Of that spooky, dingy room!
I used gloom instead of dark. It means the same thing as dark really – AND I could find a rhyme that made sense in the context of the story.
So, before you even think about the rhyming aspect, write down your story in prose, so you know what is going to happen at the beginning, the middle and the end (a prose version about a scary dungeon would be VERY unlikely to have a shark in it!). Once you have that, you can start doing your ‘jigsaw’, finding the perfect words. And when you’ve finished, you rhyming story will have focus and make sense.
3 Perfect or imperfect?
There are lots of definitions to describe different types of rhyme – for example, people talk about half rhyme, slant rhyme, near rhyme, assonance and consonance. But to keep things simple, let’s just talk about perfect and imperfect rhyme – and which of the two you want to use.
Perfect rhyme is harder by nature because it requires the rhyming words to match in both their vowel and consonant sounds. So the combination of eat/sweet matches both the “ee” sound and the “t” sound. Similarly host/most share both the “oh” sound and the “st” sound.
If you were using imperfect rhyme, though, you might choose to only match either the vowel sound, OR the consonant sound. So you could have eat/leaf, which share only the “ee” sound. Or you could have host/last which share only the “st” sound.
Put simply, there are more imperfect rhyme combinations in the English language than there are perfect rhyme combinations – so writing in imperfect rhyme will give you more options. Writing in perfect rhyme is harder and takes more practice, so don’t feel bad about starting out with imperfect rhyme, pop stars use it all the time! Think about some of the lyrics to some of your favourite songs, and I bet you find loads of examples of imperfect rhyme.
4 Master rhythm
Did you know that poems have feet? No? Well if you were to learn about poetry in a formal way, you’d be bombarded by all sort of funny terms which are used to describe the way verse is written, including metric feet, meter and iambs. It can all get very technical, but you don’t necessarily need to know that stuff. All you need to understand is that poems and rhymes normally have rhythm.
If you listen to a rhyming poem being read aloud, you’ll probably be able to detect the rhythm, or a beat, running through it It’s a bit like listening to a tune being played.
But if, when writing rhyme, you somehow miss a beat of your rhythm, it feels awkward. Imagine listening to your favourite pop star singing your favourite song – but they have hiccups. Argh! That’s what it feels like when a rhyme loses its beat.
Being consistent with your rhythm can be tricky and it has a lot to with the emphasis we put on syllables in words and phrases – it is these strong and weak syllables which provide the rhythm. When we speak naturally, we put moreemphasis on some syllables than we do on others. See how I have made the stronger syllables bold?
When you write a line of rhyme, it’s important not to force the reader to put the emphasis on a syllable where it wouldn’t occur in natural speech, just to achieve the rhythm. For example, if you put stress on the last part of the word emphasis, it would sound weird and awkward. So you need to try to write the lines of your rhyming story so all the words can be read in a natural, but rhythmic way.
5 Test your rhyming story
Have you written a brilliant rhyming story? I find a very good way to find out is to ask someone to read your work aloud to you. Listen carefully. Do they stumble on any lines? Do they pause in parts? These clues will let you know if you have some bits and pieces that need fixing.
Perhaps you need to add a syllable to fix your rhythm, or maybe you need to take one away. It might be that you need to swap one word for another, to make sure the syllable emphasis falls in the right place for your rhyme’s beat.
It’s not only me who uses this read aloud method – Julia Donaldson does too, and if that isn’t what you’d call tried and tested, I don’t know what is.
PS. Don’t forget to ask your guinea pig whether they liked the story too!
Pip Jones’ latest Squishy McFluff book, illustrated by Ella Okstad, is Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Seaside Rescue and you can buy it from the Guardian bookshop.