Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 15, 2013

Poetry and Plot

As I try to arrange bad poems, not-quite-there poems, and almost-poems, I’m still thinking about issues I wrote in my post last Friday about balancing verse and story to fit in one book set in the past. Now instead of replacing words to see if I can unlock images, I’m looking at the big picture. I printed out a sixty page draft of one section, and am drawing bold lines between poems which must also be scenes. Do I sense some muscle behind a pretty enough complexion? When I set chopped-apart pages on the floor to walk around, can I imagine being ankle-deep in the river and feeling the current? Can I conjure a bout of Herculean strength, enough to twist around the river?

Emailing a friend about her attempt to impose some plot on a quiet story, I questioned whether plot is the best word to use, even though I believe I’d been the one to bring it up. Some of us who’ve been labeled “quiet” can tend to take on the role of being plot-challenged, when we might better think about pacing: are there places that sag, that can be cut for perhaps less detail but more adventure? Spending a long time on something, we can forget that readers may not need to know what we know, so I consider snatching back what one draft carefully set forward. I’m not writing an action packed novel, but within my chosen scale, there must be movement, something like the sound of brisk footsteps or turning pages. There must be feeling, and often it can get ramped up. I peer into what I’d gently set out happening, then lean back and ask: Wouldn’t my character be angry here? Could perhaps something be flung through the air? Or is it time to leap or twirl? It’s great to all objective-correlative-y and let things stand for feelings, but sometimes we want a wail or a whoop.

I get out my scissors again to clip pages and look for spaces that happily end with suspense, and leave them be. I say goodbye to description that seems indulgent, trading detail for a swifter pace. Where can my character and readers be surprised? What wrong turns can I add in? How can I put a sense of mystery into a life now that I have a draft and know where people are going?

There’s some fun, especially when I play with different colors of ink to orchestrate themes. It’s important to ask: What happens here? What’s the impact and feeling? But once I’ve got a structure, I invite the poet back. Now I sit with those places where I jotted down, “needs more mysterious phrasing,” or more succinctly, “bleh.” I settle in with each rough poem, holding each like a cocoon, and wait to see what will break out.

Today at Live Your Poem … I’m elated that Irene Latham talks about my new book, Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life and quotes me on my experience self publishing, which I’ll write more about here next week. She’s also generously offering a chance to win a copy, just by leaving a comment by midnight tomorrow, so please head on over!

And please visit my dear friend Jama at Alphabet Soupwhere she’s not only hosting Poetry Friday, with a recipe for apple pumpkin muffins, but wrote a lovely tribute to my book. Do I love our blogging community? Yes, I do.


  1. This is marvelous, Jeannine. So helpful!

    • Thanks, Sarah. We will triumph if not over plot, with it. (I wanted to put a question mark there, but stopped myself). xo

  2. Interesting and very helpful — plot is the toughest thing for me, and I like your suggestion to think in terms of pacing, movement, feeling . . . 🙂

    • Patricia MacLachlan always says she missed plot day in school, but with all due respect, I don’t necessarily believe her. I can look at the first page of the wonderful Sarah, Plain and Tall and see all the elements she’s going to cover.

      Good for you, just take plot out of your vocabulary and think with other elements. Not everyone loves jaunty, anyway.

  3. Congratulations on the lovely book, Jeannine, I cannot wait to dive in! Love the way you put this, too:I settle in with each rough poem, holding each like a cocoon, and wait to see what will break out.
    It so captures that sense of incubating wonder – in the form of a poem.

    • Thanks for all your encouragement along the way, and it’s a great feeling to know my book is on your desk.

  4. I have a friend who is ‘on her way’ with a novel, and I will share this with her. Although I’m not writing a novel, it made clear sense to me also as a reader. Thank you Jeannine! I love those questions in paragraph 2!

    • Thanks, Linda. Your friend and your writing group are lucky to have you. And as Steven writes below, whether poetry or prose, most of the challenges are pretty much the same. And there’s a lot to be learned from switching genres, or thinking in the terms of one genre while working on another.

  5. Thank you for this, Jeannine. I am writing my own verse narrative (mine a fantasy adventure), and I continually return to screenwriter Robert McKee’s theory that story energy is “the gap that opens between expectation and result” — the divide between what we expect to happen when a character makes a choice and takes an action and what “forces of antagonism” arise to counter or outright block the character.

    The questions I keep asking myself are, Is my protagonist actively pursuing his goal, and how do I arrange scenes so that he has to make increasingly difficult and costly decisions so that in the end there is only one choice to make and action to take? Does my story action build to a “crisis decision” and “climactic action”?

    A short story might contain all of these narrative stages in a single scene, but a novella or novel requires a carefully orchestrated sequence. Challenging to do in prose; doubly challenging in verse, where formal concerns ought to balance with narrative ones (or why write in line and stanza?).

    Steven Withrow

    • Great questions and challenges, Steven. Thank you! I have still more to think about. And your project sounds challenging, yes, but also wonderful. I’m glad to know such work is being done.

  6. One more point: Even the “quiet but deep” stories need rising action (increasing conflict, external or internal) and carefully placed “turns” (reversals and revelations). Plot is simply the order of events (motivated moments of decision that bring about change). Verse adds more tools to the writer’s toolbox (“use at your own risk”) but doesn’t change the principles of narrative structure.

  7. I particularly enjoyed the image of the literal cutting and pasting. Writing is craftsmanship. 🙂

    • Thank you, Myra. Writing is indeed craftsmanship, but sometimes I like something a bit more tangible in my hands. That was one of the things I liked about self-publishing, putting together something that could be held and smelled.

  8. I tend to be one of those quiet, plot-challenged writers. I think I need a semester with you, not just a post!

    • Ah yes, I recognize even in myself that quiet “I tend to be.” Hey, we are plot-challenged, but we can send each other virtual kicks every now and then as reminders to try ramping it up and see what happens. And if you want me to stand at the front of the class, here’s your assignment: put an earthquake in your next poem. Or just let somebody yell. xo

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