A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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Take a familiar plunge.

If you’re dipping your toes into the waters of poetry writing, the ballad is a good place to start, because the form is both basic and familiar. Whether you’ve taken literature classes, read poetry, or simply listened to music, you’ve probably heard or read ballads hundreds or thousands of times.

Structure and tone.

The core structure for a ballad is a quatrain, written in either abcb or abab rhyme schemes. The first and third lines are iambic tetrameter, with four beats per line; the second and fourth lines are in trimeter, with three beats per line.

The second ingredient is the story you want to tell. It can be about you, someone you know, a relationship, or an experience – good, bad, triumphant, or tragic.

To begin, sketch out the tale. Don’t worry about beats per line, rhyme schemes, or stanza breaks. Simply write the story you want to present as a ballad. Once you’ve written the narrative, pare down the length and strike all words that don’t drive or describe the action. This bit of editing will make the conversion process much easier.

Hook your reader.

Now, look at your piece and listen for the beat. Re-form your language into balladic form, making sure to open with a stanza that sets the table for the story to unfold:

As I walked into the coffeehouse,
I spotted her sipping tea.
She looked up with her forlorn eyes,
Her sadness clear to me.

This particular stanza could take the story in two directions: an elegiac tale of how she became sad and can’t overcome it or a hopeful story of how interaction with the narrator can lift her from her malaise. Present a plot that can unfold in a number of ways, and you’ll hook your reader’s imagination and heart.

She invited me to take a seat,
She had a story to tell,
About the day her husband left,
The day love turned to hell.

Tell your story.

Finish setting the stage in the second quatrain, and then unfold the story with crafty emotion, letting the natural rhythm of the ballad seep from your mind and heart onto the page.

She gave him everything she had,
Her body, soul and heart,
His old habits got the best of him,
He relapsed; she fell apart.

Off he went on a bender, it seems,

A blur of drugs and drink–
When she confronted him, he said,
"Fine," and took off–just think

Of the pain it caused this woman,

Her eyes folded into her face,
Tears so sharp, bitter and fierce
They’re salting her in place.

Close with authority.

As your ballad winds toward its conclusion, you can retain the rhyme scheme for the closing stanza or go off-beat with an envoi, or refrain. Either way, use the penultimate quatrain to make the turn for home and the final quatrain to close the poem with authority.

Yet she turns up at the coffeehouse,
Loneliness not her style,
Through those sad eyes I can tell
She’s yearning for joy, while

Dealing with the tragedy of losing

A man once very sweet,
A man now lost in his shadows,
Her sadness under his feet.

From banal to mystical.

As you develop your narrative, remember the ballad’s focus on music and narrative. Even if you write the most banal story about going to the grocery store, the music could transform your story into a mystical piece. So as you revise your story into the ballad form, hone the rhythm and rhyme, making surprising connections with word-sounds. Focus on the language, and you’ll surely write something to sing.