Rhyming stories have always been popular with children. From Hilare Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children to Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter’s The Dinosaur that Pooped series, rhyming stories have had a place on our bookshelves and no doubt always will. There’s something very satisfying about reading a good rhyme – it’s like putting the last puzzle piece into a jigsaw. And rhyme and rhythm are great at helping with reading skills as well as making text easier to remember and above all – fun!
But for writers rhyming stories can pose a bit of a problem. It’s widely believed that rhyming books are much harder to get published, and this is to some extent true as it’s harder for the publisher or agent to sell translation rights. The text either has to be translated word for word, losing the rhymes in the process, or almost completely rewritten. However, the popularity of rhyming texts is testament to the fact that publishers are still publishing them; you only have to look at the success of Julia Donaldson. But the text has to be good. The rhymes have to delight. There are plenty of pitfalls to stumble into when writing in rhyme, so I’ve put together a few tips that might help when you’re coming up with your own rhyming story. The tips are geared towards picture book writers but hopefully will assist with any rhyming-based writing activity.
- Put the stronger rhyme second
When you’ve got two rhyming words that end your lines, think about positioning them so the weaker rhyme goes first, followed by the stronger rhyme. This gives the impression that a great rhyme has slipped naturally into place rather than just because it fits. For example, in my book Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip, Professor McQuark is looking at the other inventions in the science fair and the couplet reads as follows:
“A yo-yo with slo-mo, a door with a zip,
But nothing as fine as the Oojamaflip.”
This is much stronger than if I had written it the other way round, where it would sounds like I have come up with the “door with a zip” invention just to fit the rhyming pattern. Of course I have, but positioning it first makes it seem like I haven’t!
- Don’t forget the rhythm
Rhyming books aren’t just about the last words, they are about rhythm too. Imagine a song where you have to fit the words to the notes. If in doubt, read it out! You’ll soon hear where the words don’t fit. You can also beat the rhythm out on the table (or get your drum kit out). Try this with master rhymers Julia Donaldson or Dr Seuss to get an idea of the ‘beats’ you might use.
- Don’t mess with sentence structure
You do need to think about positioning your words, but try not to end up with a strange sentence structure just to fit the rhythm. Chief suspects are the words ‘it’ and ‘did’ which are sometimes sneaked into rhymes in order to make up the right number of syllables, such as in this made-up example:
“The clock it struck twelve, time to leave for the show,
So off to the big circus tent we did go.”
If you don’t speak like that in real life, it won’t sound very convincing in a rhyme either. If you find yourself tempted, try to rethink the sentence so you get the right number of syllables in a more natural way.
- Alliteration is good in small doses
“She ran to her shed and she banged and she battered,
She sawed and she sanded, she clanged and she clattered.”
Yes, I love alliteration, but almost too much. I have had whole lines rejected because I have turned them into tongue twisters. So use as much alliteration as you like, but make sure you can say it without getting your tongue in a knot.
- Look for internal rhymes
An internal rhyme is a rhyme occurring in the middle of a sentence. For example, in the Professor McQuark extract above, “a yo-yo with slo-mo” rhymes with itself and adds a little extra icing to your rhyming cake. It’s amazing how often an internal rhyme can slip in, so if you see one, celebrate it.
- Don’t let the rhyme tell the story
It’s hard to let a brillant rhyme go, but sometimes you have to when it just doesn’t fit the story. The rhyming words should serve your story structure, not dictate it. Try to think of what you want to say, then say it in rhyme, rather than thinking of the rhymes and then making them into a story.
- Harness the power of repetition
Fortunately for picture book writers, children love repetition. Not only do they like to hear the same story again but they like the same phrases again. The Gruffalo is a great example of this with its repeated phrases, the repeated scene with a variation for each animal and ultimately the story itself repeated but reversed. A repeated phrase allows you to reuse rhymes, but beware of overdoing this as readers still need a surprise or two along the way.
- Make it look easy
Good rhymes look easy but may be anything but! Personally I find that sometimes the rhyme just pops into my head, but more often than not it’s a result of a long dog walk and twenty minutes of washing up before the right word or phrase is finally sifted from the detritus of my brain. I also find that most rhymes can be improved by twiddling with the sentence or swopping an odd word here and there, to make the rhyme look more natural. And don’t feel guilty for looking in a rhyming dictionary or online, but try not to let it seduce you with its long and clever words. Sometimes the best rhymes are the simplest.
You’ve read my advice and are raring to go.
But if you have other tips, please let me know!