If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a story worth a thousand pictures?
I have been writing poetry since elementary school. I don’t know why, it was just one of those things that fit into my mind very well. I turned out poems by the pound in the 4th grade. Most of them were about horses, I recall, for that was what truly inspired me back then. As I “grew up” in my craft, I discovered that poetry writing went hand-in-hand with my other fascination, music making. It worked like this: A melody would get stuck in my mind, and simply cry out, “Sing me!” And so, who was I to argue? I would write something around the melody, and then sing it.
I still write songs in this way. Horse poems? No, not so much.
My love of verse comes from the way I like to approach it. Poetry and songwriting, for me, takes the form of a picture puzzle. Rhymed, unrhymed, free, or structured, every poem has a job to do. The poem must create a clear image, and that is all. E.E. Cummings (aka e.e. cummings) approached his poems as if they were paintings, and for good reason: The blank page that starts every verse is a canvas, waiting for the artist to realize what lays on it.
It is understandable, then, that many poets stick to verse, and never venture into the realm of prose. A poem – with a notable exception for the narrative poetry context – tends to be a single, descriptive image of a moment in time. The writer can work within a discrete framework, and stop when the work is done. Parts of the idea can be realized rather piecemeal, and the rest can be fleshed out as the work progresses to its final form.
Isn’t that the same kind of thing that we do when we write a short story? To answer that, ask your favorite poet this question: “Hey, why don’t you take that poem you wrote, and just ‘flesh it out’ into a short story?’” I predict that the poet will run away screaming. Why? The still image of verse leaves much to the imagination. Somehow, we find a way to be at peace with that. A story, however, does not have the luxury of holding still. It must move, invent a character, deliver a voice, and make its reader care about what happens next. So, trying to “make” a story from a poem is like trying to “make” a film from a photograph. Ask yourself: Are you happy with a movie that tells only part of a story?
This is the reason it is hard to make the jump. But all is not lost. My fellow poets, take this example:
The sun is high, you rest below,
The dappled trees adore you.
Your mother grazes far away,
But ever watches o’er you.
Your scent is of the sylvan wood,
Your spots like beams of sun;
The forest holds you in its womb
‘Til you can walk and run.
A poem can stop there comfortably. As a story writer, though, we have some things to think about. What is happening? Who is involved? What are they thinking? Why do we care? It is quite overwhelming at first, but you can do this. I invite you to think of your poem as a single frame in a movie, and use it as your focal point. After that, expand the story outward. Let your verse describe a single scene, and then think, what happened before this? What will happen afterward? Who is in this story that your reader might care about? Answer these questions, and then tell us about it.
So, are you ready? Let’s turn this still photo into a short movie. First we have questions to answer:
Scene: The woods near a farm.
Characters: Doe, Farm dog, Baby fawn
Action: A dog is walking in the woods next to a newborn fawn. Will the fawn stay safe and hidden?
Now, we can do something with our scene:
The dog loped down the trail, tongue dripping in the midday heat. The white-tailed doe knew it was the farm dog, for she had run across his scent every day of her life. He was the same yellow mutt that kept chasing her away from the green, juicy garden vegetables. She raised her head and stood at attention, waiting. Her baby was in plain sight, and the dog would find it if he knew where to look. She would lead the dog away if she had to.
The doe’s nostrils flared in, out, in, out. A watchful mother, she stood far away from her fawn, a statue with ears perked forward. Her baby had no scent, but it also had no legs for running away from danger. Her fawn was only a newborn, not able to even walk yet. If the dog found her, it would be an accident. The doe didn’t like accidents.
The yellow dog’s breath came hot as his tongue dripped drool. She could hear and smell all of him. He was so close to the fawn now that he would step on the baby if he walked one pace to the right. The mother deer held her breath, terrified, alert, and ready for action. She couldn’t see her child, but she knew it was lying as still as the leaves on the ground, right where she had left it.
Suddenly, the dog stopped. As the doe’s muscles tensed for action, the dog’s tiny brain disengaged completely from its original plan. Something rustled in the bushes to his left. Off he went, barking, howling, and chasing the unfortunate rabbit back into its burrow.
Relieved, the young mother relaxed once again, chewing on the tender shoots of a nearby bush. For the moment, all was well.
Now, poets everywhere, it’s your turn. Find a poem of yours and tell us more of the story. Set your scene, characters, and action, and turn your still image into a moving picture. Let us meet some someone inside of your picture, and get to know them. You will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun this is.