Exploring the Verse Novel

Verse Novel Format

The Verse Novel (AKA: a novel in poems) is a new form of storytelling that’s hit the YA market in the last five to ten years. Intrigued by this new form, I spent some time during my studies at the Vermont College of Fine Art this past term exploring the nuts and bolts of this form. Due to it’s intense emotional scenes, use of white space, and often edgy content, verse novels have become very popular with teens. Many see this controversial new form  as a great way to engage teens in poetry,where others find it to be lazy and examples of poor poetry and storytelling. You may love the form, hate it, or not be familiar with it at all. Either way, I thought I’d share some observations about the format that I’ve discovered in my personal exploration.

What is a Verse Novel?

  • The verse novel is a new term that describes a narrative book of poetry.
  • This is a highly controversial new book form. Many seem to have trouble classifying the form altogether as it’s not quite a long form poem (like the Iliad) nor is it a collection of poems, nor is it a normal novel. Personally, I’d consider it a new format in storytelling (rather than a genre) similar to how a graphic novel is a new format but can tell any type of story it wants.

Some Examples of Verse Novels Include:

  • Books by author Ellen Hopkins: Crank, Tricks, Impulse, Fallout.
  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
  • Make Lemonade by Virginia Ewer Wolff
  • Novels by Sonya Sones: Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn’t Know
  • Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block

Use of Poetic Form:

  • The verse novel uses the poetic form in some manner. Most YA and MG verse novels use free or open verse. But some use more stringent poetic forms such as ballads.
  • Verse novels have a strong use of white space.
  • Some of the controversy comes from the fact that verse novels have creative use of line breaks (which some argue doesn’t make it poetry, but prose with weird line breaks).
  • There is often creative punctuation (no caps, no periods, etc.)

A Strong Focus on Emotion:

  • Poems create impressions of emotions, and some term this as a focus on “emotionalism.”
  • The emotion is the most important part in verse novels!
  • Some refer to this focus on emotion as creating impressions (like an impressionistic painting).
  • There’s often a focus on brief interactions and moments rather than whole scenes.

Plot and the Verse Novel:

  • Some verse novels have a cause and event plot, but others don’t. With a focus on emotion, often the causality found in most goal-oriented plots is lacking in a verse novel. But that is not always true.
  • The strong focus on emotional moments allows the reader can piece together the events and story like a collage. This creates reader interaction and involvement.
  • A verse novel can be organized around a series of scenes or moments that center around a common theme or idea.
  • The poems can work like a game of connect the dots. The reader is offered many small moments/impressions that the reader then pieces together to see the whole.
  • A lack of plot can sometimes leave the reader wanting more.

Does the Choice to Write a Novel In Verse Need to be Motivated?

  • This is one of the controversial topics concerning Verse Novels. Many people argue that YES, there must be motivation for telling a story in verse. Like any  craft choice, be it POV or tense, there should be a reason for its existence that’s motivated out of the story itself.
  • Often, motivations include some sort of story frame. Examples include the novel as the protagonist’s journal of poems, or the form as a result of a class assignment to explore poetry. Etc. I feel these are too direct interpretations. For example a graphic novel isn’t framed as a character’s sketchbook. The audience accepts it as a new media of storytelling.
  • Some creative choices for verse motivation come out of the language itself. It could be a reflection of a character’s manner of speaking. For example in Make Lemonade the line breaks reflect when the character takes a breath.

What are your thoughts on verse novels? Do you love them? Hate them? Want to try writing one?

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16 responses to “Exploring the Verse Novel”

  1. I really enjoy Verse novels, and so admire writers who can pull them off. The first one I read was by total accident–I heard it was a good book and ordered it from the library, and when I picked it up, found out it was a novel in verse!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Sarah Tregay says:

    Thanks for the post! I’m a huge fan of novels in verse–so I’m happy to have a new batch to read after a bit of a dry spell. (I just ordered a copy of Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.)

    Sarah Tregay

  3. Rebecca says:

    I love them, and because of how much I love them, I have written two myself. My first one earned me a few requests for the full ms, but I have yet to land an agent. Oh well. The true joy comes in writing them, and I’m not just saying that because I’m supposed to!

    Some of my favorite novels-in-verse are Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Love that Dog and Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech, and Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas.

    • Rebecca,

      You should look into “Inside Out & Back Again” by Thanhha Lai, it’s in verse and just won the 2012 National Book Award and is a Newberry Honor. It’s fantastic. Another novel in verse I just read and LOVE is “Keesha’s House” by Helen Frost. Wonderful work!

  4. Jove says:

    Dear Ingrid,

    Thank you for your trailblazing blog. How much of a market do you think there might be for an illustrated verse novel with music?


  5. Thanks for this interesting look at new ways with verse. The most recent verse novel I’ve read was Ray Tyndale’s Farm Woman. I enjoyed reading it. I’m currently working with Ray as my verse mentor.

    I have Multiple Sclerosis, and I’m writing my memoir about my new life, and I’m writing it in verse. It’s fun and frustrating at times, but I feel great about writing it. I hope other people will read it and understand this crazy disease better.

  6. Cole says:

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this post and the rest of the site
    is extremely good.

  7. Emily says:

    Why is Make Lemonade formatted like a poem? I don’t really understand how it adds to the story and if anything, it seems to just make it more confusing. Is it supposed to show the different emotions in the stanzas?

    • Emily, I’ve read some interviews by the author who said that the intention wasn’t for the book to be poems, but that the line breaks actually represent moments when the character stops to breathe/takes a breath.

  8. elitwright says:

    Here, we are working to expand and expound upon this most treasured literary art form. Versenovelry. Great!
    I’m a newly published author (selfy) and can testify to how painstaking it is to try to produce anything in league with the more masterful scribes of the day. I only encourage any readers to keep up the demand, loads of wonderful minds ought be involved in our literature’s future.

  9. Tara Zelvy says:

    Thanks for your rundown of novels in verse, very informative to a newcomer! I’m a 7th grade language arts teacher and love to intro poetry through this avenue. In fact, I’m linking your page to my course in blackboard for my students, aka newcomers. We’re heading into a readers’ workshop on poetry with a heavy emphasis on this genre.

  10. thanks for this post. The more focus on verse-novels, the better! I’ve written ten v-n for YA. One aspect I love with the format is that it allows me to tell a story through multiple first-person narrators. In one of my verse-novels for YA, ‘Cold Skin’ – I have nine narrators – easy with a v-n, but I’d hate to try it in prose.

    • I am a writer and have written short stories , poems and one novel. However, this is my first venture into versenovelry. I think I rather like the form, the development of my story. I am using a rhyming pattern and that forces me to look for new, rhyming meaningful words all the time. The book as yet untitled.

  11. batmansbestfriend says:

    Speaking of creative punctuation, how about the currently 709 page n9ovel I spent the last year writing and am now proofreading…

    I decided to not use line breaks that would be more traditional to poetry (even though my book was written with the full intent of expressing the same beauty, language, and rhythm common place with poetry) and instead use ellipsis because of the relationship they seem to give the words or sentence fragnemts to either side of them. Anyway, at one point I figured a rough average and realized that I was using about 11 ellipsis per page and where the page count was at the time (can’t for the life of me remember) that would have placed the total useage of the punctuation mark right around 3,000 – 3,5000 for what was then the totality of the novel…before I had finished writing it.

    Now, as I proofread, and fix the structure of the first few chapters (to better match the later ones), I find I am adding more ellipsis (usually on pages that don’t have any) and if I were to do the math, assuming the average has not increased, that would place the total number of elipsis (709 pages currently) at right about 7,800 approx. At one point I sampled an elipsis heavy section and found the average was 16 per page, which, if assumed for the entirte book (as an average) would place the count near 11,300. I usually keep the number 8,000 in the back of my head knowing it’s probably a low average, lol

    …maybe at some point, using Ctrl F, I will coun’t the ellipsis, but who knows.

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