We have all read “smart” poems, the ones that work an established form effectively or present a well-crafted metaphor. Then there are those with a good message that we can read on appropriate occasions. We approve of these poems.
But when we read a poem where the form serves the metaphor, where the beat of the rhythm speaks but draws no attention to itself, where rhyme and alliteration slide into the reader’s heart and mind, that poem is powerful. The skills of the poet slip out of sight, and the poem works.
We story-tellers need to learn to work as hard as poets. Too often, we put the structure of the tale—the need for a red herring in a mystery or a glitch in the new technology in sci-fi—right there on the surface for all to see. Metaphors are thrown in to liven up a boring scene, and symbols are placed like streetlights where we cannot miss them. The tools of the trade become a gaudy frame that it is hard to look past.
The best stories, the best chapters in our novels, are the ones where the symbol has become the form, and the twist in the plot is also a metaphor. In the tales that work, dialogue is not just set in place like lines in a play script, but speaks with the voice of the character. These are the stories where the tools become the window we look through to see the world the teller imagined for us.
So those of us who want to write stories, should practice writing poetry. Talk to a poet or three about how they sublimate the tools of their craft into the poem. Read poetry, not just the epic story-telling kind, but the haiku that captures a moment. Write poems to practice attending to rhythm and sound. Then come back to the story and craft each scene, each sentence, each bit of dialogue, like a line of poetry. True, there is a limit to how much time we have to devote to each chapter of a long novel, but the time we spend will pay off in a story that comes alive.