Studying Rhythm to Master Rhyme by Carrie Finison

Thinking of writing in rhyme? Not sure if you should? Does rhyme even sell?!

I’m thrilled to welcome Carrie Finison, author of Dozens of Doughnuts (& more on the way!) to answer these questions and share her insights on rhythm and rhyme.

Dozens of Doughnuts cover

“Don’t write in rhyme.”

“I don’t accept rhyming manuscripts.”

“No rhyme, please.”

For years, I heard these words from agents and editors. Then I’d go into bookstores and look at the shelves FULL of rhyming picture books, exactly the kind I was trying to write. It gave me hope, but was also…confusing.

As I worked to develop my writing (and rhyming), I pondered why so many agents and editors say, “no rhyme.” Some of them truly mean it — they’re not the right editor for a rhyming piece. But for others, I think it’s because they see a lot “bad” rhyme. But what does bad rhyme mean, exactly?

The fact is, most new writers are NOT bad at rhyme. Most of us can hear that ‘star’ rhymes with ‘car’ and doesn’t rhyme with ‘four.’ In fact, when I see manuscripts from new writers, usually the RHYME isn’t the issue at all. Sure, it takes a bit of work and experience to make your rhymes interesting and unusual, to make them work with your story and not feel tossed in to make a line work. But the place where most rhyming manuscripts fall down is in the RHYTHM.

All writing has rhythm. A line of text has soft (unstressed) beats and stronger (stressed) beats, sometimes random and sometimes in a pattern. When the pattern is consistent from line to line, a piece of writing moves from the category of ‘prose’ to ‘verse’ – specifically ‘metered verse.’ If you want to master writing picture books in rhyme, you need to train your ear to hear these rhythms, and to hear the differences between patterns.

Read the lines from these poems that have two different patterns. As you do, try tapping or clapping the rhythm, with a soft clap for the syllable that have LESS stress and a loud clap for the syllables with MORE stress:

From Shel Silverstein’s “Sick”:

“I cannot go to school today,”

Said little Peggy Ann McKay.

“I have the measles and the mumps,

A gash, a rash, and purple bumps.

Can you hear the pattern?

da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM

From Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

Can you hear how this pattern is different from the first example?

da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM

Now, let’s write the words to show the rhythm in these lines, with the stressed syllables capitalized and bolded. I will also mark the pattern of stressed beats, where a / symbol indicates a stressed beat and a u symbol indicates an unstressed beat.

By mapping the lines out in this way, I hope you can see several things:

  • The differences in the two patterns. The first one alternates stressed and unstressed beats, while the second one has two unstressed beats between every stressed beat.
  • How consistent the patterns are. If you’re going to write in rhyme, it’s your job to make your lines equally consistent. Anything else will stand out to readers as “wrong” – and since your first reader will be an agent or an editor, that may get your story tossed in the rejection pile.
  • The two-syllable words have the stresses in the right places. Clement Moore didn’t make us say chim-NEY or christ-MAS, but placed these words in the line so that we can say them with their natural stresses.

I’m proud to say that after lots of work and study – and lots of “bad rhyme,” I was able to polish my skills and sell a rhyming picture book! My first book, DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, comes out on July 21. Here are the opening lines. See if you can tap out the pattern!

Early one morning, as autumn leaves scatter,

LouAnn’s busy stirring a big bowl of batter.

She’ll eat some sweet treats, then, warm and well-fed,

she’ll sleep away winter, tucked tight in her bed.

Internal spread from Dozens of Doughnuts

Meter is too big a topic for one blog post, but I along the way I’ve found lots of great resources that have helped me figure this stuff out.

First, (and most important) is to READ recently-published rhyming picture books, and study the patterns you find there. I have a list of suggestions on my website to get you started: https://www.carriefinison.com/rhyming-picture-books-to-study

I also HIGHLY recommend Renée LaTulippe’s Peek & Critique series on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8oq0wOZjP6EFfv9SUgy4MA/featured

Here are some further links for study:

http://www.dorichaconas.com/Icing%20the%20Cake%20page.htm

https://www.writingrhymeandmeter.comhttp://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Examples%20of%20Iambs.pdf

Finally, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED. Keep practicing, study, and get your rhythms and rhyme just right, and you can sell a rhymer, too!

Carrie Finison writes picture books with humor and heart. In spite of all advice to the contrary, she has been writing in rhyme (and out) for many years. Her first rhyming picture book, DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, is due in July, 2020, from Putnam, with two more rhymers in the works. She won the Barbara Karlin work-in-progress grant from SCBWI, and the Peg Davol picture book scholarship from NESCBWI, both with rhyming manuscripts and her poetry has been published in children’s magazines including High Five, Ladybug, and Babybug. She currently serves as the Rhyming Picture Books “Elf” for the 12×12 Picture Book Challenge program and recently co-taught the Lyrical Language Lab course with Renée LaTulippe. She also offers “Rhyming It Right: A Clinic for Rhymers” for critique groups through the SCBWI ShopTalk program. Find her online at www.carriefinison.com or on Twitter @CarrieFinison.

If you enjoy my blog and want to connect with me (Laura Lavoie), you can find me on Twitter and Instagram!

2 thoughts on “Studying Rhythm to Master Rhyme by Carrie Finison”

  1. Thank you so much!!
    I have more of an ear for rhyme than a brain for it — and I do write in rhyme but only when something sings to me. I’ve learned the hard way…forced rhyme just sounds forced.

  2. This was so helpful! Thank you so much. Although I have a MFA in creative writing, poetry, meter continues to be a challenge for me.

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