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.


How To Format Your Screenplay

When reading about screenwriting you’ll notice a lot is made of the importance of formatting. How your screenplay looks on the page can make or break its chances of being read at all. With the rise of the internet and reams of readily available screenplays available online, the screenplay format has become standardised internationally. This post will run you through what you need to know about screenplay formatting.

As a preface, it is important to note why it is so important to format your screenplay properly. Think of it this way: everything you write is geared towards an audience. The audience for your screenplay is primarily script readers and producers, perhaps even directors and actors later down the road. These people read a lot of screenplays. But the final product is a film or a television episode, not the screenplay itself. The most important thing therefore is to make it as easy as possible to understand what is happening on the screen by making it absolutely clear to the reader what is action, what is dialogue, where a scene is taking place and which characters are present. Ultimately it is your story and your characters that will determine whether your screenplay succeeds or fails, but in order to effectively communicate those things you have to have a firm grasp on the screenplay format.

Use Courier 12pt, single-spaced, no excuses. The reason for this, aside from plain readability,  is that one page of a screenplay written in Courier 12pt single-spaced roughly translates to one minute of screen time. This is useful for everyone involved, including you of course, to approximate the length of a screenplay.

The left margin should be 1.5″ and the other sides should be 1″. This is primarily to leave space for binding and notes.

Page Numbering
The first page shouldn’t be numbered but all subsequent pages should be to ensure that scenes don’t get shuffled around accidentally.

Title Page
The title page for your screenplay should bear the name of your screenplay, “by” or “written by” and your name, on three seperate lines in the centre of the page. In the bottom left hand corner you should put your contact information, including an address. If you have an agent, you should put your agent’s information there instead. The bottom right hand corner can be used for any copyright information but it is not required. Everything should be in Courier 12pt, like the body of your script.

Fade In
Your screenplay should start with the phrase “FADE IN:” on the left hand side, flush to the margin and in all-caps. This lets the reader know that this is the beginning of your script.

Scene Headings
This is a short description of the scene. All it should contain is “INT.” or “EXT.” depending on whether the scene is an internal or external location, where the scene takes place and “DAY” or “NIGHT” depending on when the scene takes place. For example, if the scene takes place in a coffee shop during the day your scene heading should read “INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY”. Note that it should be in all-caps, flush to the left margin and can go all the way to the right margin (although you are probably putting in too much information if it is).

Action, or scene description, reaches from margin to margin and describes what is happening in the scene. Use the present tense, preferring the active voice. It should be in mixed case, like prose, but unlike prose it need not be in full sentences. Try to keep it simple and concise, describing only what can be seen and heard on the screen. When introducing a character in a scene, type their name in all-caps. Subsequent mentions of that character in description can be mixed case.

When a character speaks, type their name in all-caps. You should indent it 2″ from the left margin and can stretch to the right margin if needed. A minor character may not need a name and can just be referenced by their profession or identifying trait, like “DOCTOR” or “NERVOUS MAN”. One important thing to note is that the character names must be consistent throughout the screenplay to avoid confusion.

This goes after the character name, on the same line, and is placed in parentheses. Extensions are used to indicate how the dialogue is heard. For example, if a character is doing a voiceover, you would put (V.O) as the extension. If they are off-screen, but still physically present, you would put (O.S). If instead they are heard over the phone or an intercom or radio it is better to use a parenthetical.

Parentheticals go after the character name, on the next line. They should be indented 1.5″ from the left margin and 2″ from the right margin, placed in parentheses and lower-case. They are typically used to denote the way in which a line is delivered, or the medium through which it is heard. For instance, if we hear the dialogue through a phone it can be denoted in a parenthetical, whereas if the dialogue is clear as though the character were just out of frame it would be denoted as off-screen and go in the extension. Parentheticals denoting the way a line should be delivered may be used sparingly, though it is best to consider if the dialogue needs to be rewritten in order to make it clearer.

Character dialogue includes anything that the audience hears that a character is saying, whether they are on or off screen. It appears on the next line after a character name (or a parenthetical) and should be indented 1″ from the left margin and 1.5 ” from the right margin. Dialogue is written in mixed case.

Transitions and Shots
Typically you should avoid putting in transitions and shots unless they are absolutely crucial for the scene to make sense. These are added to shooting scripts to streamline the production process and are none of a screenwriter’s concern in the vast majority of situations. On the very rare occasions that you do need to use them, transitions are indented 4″ from the left margin, go all the way to the right margin and are appended with a colon, and shots are flush to the left margin and followed by two hyphens or a long dash. Both should be in all caps.

And that is just about everything you need to know in order to properly format your screenplay. You may like to bookmark this page for a quick reference on the different screenplay elements, how they should be laid out on the page and what purpose they serve. Of course it is unlikely you’ll need to remember the specifics as most screenwriting software handles formatting for you, but it is useful to refresh yourself on the basics occasionally so that you aren’t entirely reliant on that software in order to write.

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Most of all, keep writing.