Traditional Poetry Forms: Ballad

Poetry has been used since the dawn of civilisation to tell the stories of the past and the distant. In the middle ages, the form of choice for this oral tradition was the ballad.


Ballads are quite simple poems that tell a story, making them narrative poetry. They follow a simple meter and rhyme scheme so that they are memorable and can be set to music. Ballads were used to tell the stories of Robin Hood, Beowulf and many a bard’s tall tale. If you would like to write a ballad, perhaps as part of a fantasy series (where they fit very well if you have a medieval theme), then read on.

Most European ballads are written using four-line stanzas. There is no limit on the number of stanzas in a ballad, so use as many as you need to tell a story. However, the ballad is best written concisely, so use the short stanzas to keep the story moving, foregoing excessive detail in favour of imagery and metaphor.

Ballads typically follow an ABCB rhyme scheme, giving the effect of being written in couplets.

The first and third lines of each stanza are usually written in iambic tetrameter, meaning they consist of eight syllables and follow a pattern of alternating stress beginning with an unstressed syllable. The second and fourth lines are shorter, written in iambic trimeter. This is basically the same as iambic tetrameter except with six syllables rather than eight.


O mother, mother, make my bed,
   O make it saft and narrow:
My love has died for me today,
   I’ll die for him tomorrow.

That’s an excerpt from “Barbara Allen”. You can see from where I have added bold type where the stressed syllables are and that they alternate. The second and fourth lines, though they contain seven syllables rather than the usual six, are still in iambic trimeter but end with an unstressed syllable, which is commonly known as a feminine ending.

A Couple More Things
As with all poetry, rules are made to be broken. The ballad can be reworked to your liking, with changes in metre, rhyme and stanza length. But in order for you to get a feel for what makes a ballad a ballad, you should practice the traditional form I’ve laid out for you.
You should also read some ballads, not least because they are very fun to read aloud, but also because they will give you a more intuitive grasp on the form. Some of my favourites are: “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and “The Lady Of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

And that concludes this post on the ballad. Do you have a favourite ballad? Leave a comment below. Please like and share. You can follow Writer’s Allegory on Twitter (@writersallegory) and you can follow me (@matt__milton) as well.

Until next time, keep writing!

Enjoy this post? Want more? Join our mailing list to receive a weekly roundup of posts we think you’ll enjoy, as well as news and special offers! It’s free, takes less than a minute and you can unsubscribe at any time with the click of a button.

photo credit: 3D Banjo Player via photopin (license)


Traditional Poetry Forms 101: The Sonnet

This post is part of a series on traditional poetry forms. This instalment focuses on one of the most famous forms of poetry, and a personal favourite, the sonnet.

The sonnet originated in Italy in the 13th Century. Its invention is credited to Giacomo Da Lentini. Since its invention, the sonnet has been a staple of poetry across many cultures and has been utilised by a great number of the world’s most renowned poets. There are two main types of traditional sonnet in English: the Italian (or Petrarchian) and the English (also known as the Shakespearean, after its most famous practitioner).

The traditional sonnet consists of fourteen lines and follows a variable rhyming scheme. When written in English, the lines usually employ iambic pentameter, though not always. A main characteristic of the sonnet is that it deals with one thought or sentiment, ending with a “turn” or reflection with its closing lines.
This is the basic form of the traditional sonnet in its entirety, nothing else is prescribed. However, as mentioned earlier there are two main types of traditional sonnet, and they are described below.

Named after its most famous practioner, Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet is the prototypical sonnet. It divides the fourteen lines into two stanzas, an octave with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA and a sestet most often following a rhyme scheme of either CDCCDC or CDECDE. Early Petrarchan sonnets employed a problem-solution idea, where a problem would be outlined in the octave and a solution would be proposed in the sestet. This is not a requirement however, but the turn on the ninth line typically is. The turn should indicate a change in the mood or stance of the poem.
A good example of a Petrarchan sonnet in English is “On His Blindness” by John Milton:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The English or Shakespearean sonnet was not invented by William Shakespeare, but introduced by Thomas Wyatt. It is known as the Shakespearean after its most famous practitioner. The Shakespearean is one stanza consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, typically in the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The third quatrain holds the turn and is called a volta, indicating a change in the poem in terms of theme or imagery, though Shakespeare himself preferred to do this in the couplet.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets is “Sonnet 116”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Note that the rhyme scheme doesn’t hold with modern pronunciation, but would have done in the pronunciation of the time.

And that, my friends, is the sonnet. Of course there are many variations and poetry, as a rule, has no rules, but these are the typical features of the traditional sonnet and they are a fun challenge to write. Perhaps you would like to have a go at writing one yourself? If you do, feel free to post it in the comments below. If this post has been helpful please share via social media and if you’d like to see more content like this please subscribe/follow and if you would like to get updates via our newsletter you can join our mailing list. Look out for the next instalment in this Traditional Poetry Forms series.

Keep writing, folks.

How To Utilise Poetic Techniques To Improve Your Writing

No matter what kind of writing you are looking to improve, from prose to screenplays and everything inbetween, an understanding and appreciation of poetic techniques can take you to the next level. Often when we write we are trying to communicate, as simply as possible, our characters and our story. But we’re constrained by the rules of grammar and sentence structure and the format we’ve chosen to write in. Poetry has no constraints. The creative freedom granted by poetry allows us to exercise our creative cores, strengthening our writing and breathing new life into it.

This post will detail some of the ways in which writing and reading poetry can strengthen our writing skills in other areas. Even if you’ve never enjoyed poetry and have no intention of ever pursuing it as a creative outlet, you can use poetry as an extra tool in your writer’s toolbox.

Metaphorical Thinking
Our characters, if they are well written, are complex beings with conflicting emotions and motivations. In order to show these to the reader we have to put them in situations where these emotions and motivations are brought the front. If our main character, let’s say his name is Jack, is claustrophobic we can’t simply say so, we have to have him experience that claustrophobia in front of us.
So we write a scene where Jack gets stuck somewhere, perhaps in a cupboard or an elevator. It gets the job done, but it’s not a desperately interesting scene. Here is where we can employ metaphorical thinking, as we would in poetry. We could think about claustrophobia and what equivalencies we can find in the way Jack thinks. Perhaps he values freedom, his claustrophobia just being a manifestation or metaphor for a fear of losing freedom. How he reacts to being in an enclosed space may be the way he reacts to being forced to do something against his will. Then again, his claustrophobia may be a metaphor for his anxiety, always needing an escape route because he assumes something will go wrong and he wants to be able to get out as soon as it does.
These extra traits linked through metaphor to his claustrophobia make his fear of enclosed spaces more poignant and relevant to the fabric of who he is. Now if you want to write a scene where Jack gets stuck in an elevator you can link it to him facing his need for freedom or him battling his anxiety.
So what we’ve done is taken a character trait and thought about what other traits we can draw parallels with. Do that a few more times and you have a collection of traits that play off of each other and follow a central theme. That’s basically how you compose poetry, linking ideas with metaphor, and that’s also how you can add depth and coherence to a character’s traits.

Imagery is often underutilised outside of poetry. This is a shame as something as simple as word choice when describing a moment can greatly affect how it is imagined in the reader’s head. Imagery is any figurative language in prose, so includes metaphor and simile most commonly. It can change a moment from a dull necessity to an emotive and memorable scene with little effort.
Consider the following: “Daisy looked out at the fields before her and had a sudden urge to run and play.” What do we know after reading that sentence? We know that there are fields in front of Daisy and that she suddenly had an urge to run and play in them. That’s pretty much it, exactly what it says. Maybe we can infer that Daisy is playful, or enjoys nature, and that the fields look nice.
However, inject some imagery and we get this: “The fields sprawled out before her, inviting her in with the promise of sweet-scented flowers and butterflies to catch.” This says so much more. She doesn’t just have a sudden urge to run and play, the fields are inviting her and it is irresistable. They sprawl out, evoking images of long summer days perhaps during summer holidays. We learn that she loves nature, she is tempted by the flowers and the butterflies, perhaps she remembers her childhood summer holidays playing in the fields for hours on end.
Of course, imagery can be used for any emotion, so to make a haunted house scarier or a villain more menacing or a love interest more alluring. It is to be used with caution, however. Imagery should be reserved for the highly emotive moments in your story. When your character discovers her best friend has died, use imagery to describe those moments to make them charged. When two characters sit down for coffee, as they regularly do, he should not be sitting on “a wooden embrace for his buttocks”.

Lastly, there is meter. In prose we can think of this as sentence or clause length along with word length, and the variance in it. In screenplays we can apply an awareness of meter to the dialogue to help give our characters unique voices. In poetry we use meter to provide rhythm. There is no reason why attention to meter can’t give our prose and our screenplays the same rhythm and flow in the same way it does for our poetry.
To be clear, you don’t need to count syllables. The best way to achieve good meter is to read it out loud. Does it sound a little stunted? Add a word or two. Does it sound a little stretched? Shorten the sentence, maybe split it in two. Use shorter words for a more punchy rhythmic sound, longer words for a more flowing high-headed sound. “The dart struck him in the back. Blood spread on his shirt.” is sudden, violent, whereas “The projectile arced through the air, puncturing the target. Blood started dripping, spreading out like a puddle on his back.” sounds like a far more glorious, heady moment, drawn out in slow motion.
The choices are very intuitive, we all have an innate rhythm that we use in language every day, so it’s very easy to do if you pay attention to it. A proper study of meter while reading and writing poetry can help you take it to the next level by imbuing your language with real memorability and poignancy for use during those key moments in your story.

And that’s about it for this post. Hopefully you will take away some ideas for how you can improve your writing with poetic techniques. Has employing these techniques helped you improve your writing? Leave a comment below. If this has been helpful please follow, like and share and if you want to you can also subscribe via email to get these posts delivered straight to your inbox. And if you would like to get updates via our newsletter you can join our mailing list.

Oh, and keep writing.