So how to write a rhyming picture book…?
So many agents seem to say that they don’t want rhyming texts and yet bookshops are full of rhyming picture books, so what is going on?
The answer seems to be that no one wants bad rhyming picture books, and agents would sometimes rather see no rhyme at all, rather than rifle through the piles of bad rhyme to find something they like.
So how to rhyme well? This is the thing it took me the longest time to understand when I first started writing, so I thought I would provide a handy little ‘How To’ guide for all ‘would-be rhymers’ out there.
Just a quick word before we start. It will never matter how well you rhyme if you haven’t got a good strong story. Rhyme should always follow the story and not the other way around.
First up, it’s not all about the rhyme… its all about the metre.
RHYMING PICTURE BOOKS – METRE:
Most people can tell you which words rhyme and which words don’t. What most people are less aware of is metre, and metre is absolutely key to good rhyming texts. It is particularly important for picture books as the books are intended to be read out loud and therefore need to roll off the tongue. Good metre gives the text a predictable rhythm and helps the reader.
- What is metre?
Metre refers to the pattern of stressed syllables in a sentence. It is also sometimes called scansion. So when the sentence is read out loud, which syllables are naturally stressed? As an example:
‘A-round the ragg-ed rock the ragg-ed ras-cal ran’
Here each word is broken out into syllables, with the stressed syllable in bold. You want your rhyming text to have a regular stressed syllable pattern. You can choose whether you want an alternating ‘stressed / unstressed / stressed’ pattern or a ‘stressed / unstressed / unstressed/ stressed’ or something else entirely.
The only thing that is important from a picture book point of view, is that you pick a pattern and stick with it, to allow your reader to predict how the book should be read out loud. If you don’t have a regular and predictable pattern then, even if the text sounds great when YOU read it, it won’t have a regular rhythm whenever anyone ELSE reads it, which will make them stumble and trip over words (not great for a book that is designed to be read out loud).
- How do you know how many syllables in a word? And which ones get stressed?
With some words it is very obvious how many syllables they have. For others it can be less obvious. Some can be pronounced with either two or three syllables (try and avoid these!). Luckily www.dictionary.com is your friend and breaks out not only how many syllables there are in a word, but also rather handily highlights the stressed syllable.
An alternative (and noisier) way to figure this out is to shout the word out loud and see which syllable you shout loudest and longest!
- What about the little in-between words?
Even if you know the stressed syllables for the longer words, It can still be hard to figure out which syllables are stressed in a whole sentence. There isn’t an easy cheat to find this out. I find the easiest way is to write the text out as if it was prose and then read it out loud (or ask someone else to read it out if possible).
To an extent, the little ‘in between’ words don’t actually matter that much. As an example:
‘By noon the Dra-gon felt quite hot,
And SO he found a sha-dy spot,’
Again, the stressed syllables are in bold, but notice the ‘so’. ‘So’ would not really be stressed in a natural speech pattern, however according to the alternating pattern here it should be. This doesn’t actually matter too much, as it does not interrupt the pattern you have established. It would be different if it was a word that would normally be stressed, but that your pattern required not to be stressed. That would most likely throw a reader off.
There is a whole world of information about metre, the different patterns and different feet. So play around with different patterns and see what suits your writing best. Here I have tried to focus on the basics that are needed to write picture books.
Metre takes practice. When I first wrote a rhyming story and asked for feedback on the metre, I was politely told that I had none. Fast forward to the first set of submissions sent out by my agent, when I sold my first rhyming texts!
As an aside, you do not need to be musical to have good metre!
RHYMING PICTURE BOOKS – RHYME:
So now we have established the metre, is let’s get back to the rhyme.
- Rhyme should never lead the story:
The biggest mistake people can make with rhyme is to let the rhyme lead the story. The story should never go in a certain direction just because a rhyme takes it there. If you want to write a story about a cat sitting on a fence, it should not end up sitting on a mat just because it is a more convenient rhyme! If you are trying to find a rhyme that works, look no further than http://www.rhymezone.com.
- Try to only rhyme stressed syllables with other stressed syllables
Bit of a personal peeve, but a story will read more naturally if you avoid rhyming stressed syllables with unstressed syllables. If the rhyme depends on an unstressed syllable it will make the reader stress the wrong syllable, and the text will read less naturally. For example:
‘He-llo Sir, oh par-don me!
It seems that you have com-pan-y’
Here ‘me’ is rhymed with the last syllable of ‘com-pan-y’. Now ‘me’ would naturally be stressed in this sentence. However, the natural stress in the word ‘com-pan-y’ falls on the first syllable and you wold not naturally stress the the last one. If you force the rhyme on the last syllable the text will not read as naturally as it should. Lots of published Picture Books do have this, but I would try and avoid as much as possible, as anything that skews the natural stress of the syllables upsets the flow of the text.
- Near rhyme
For a true rhyme the stressed vowel sound, and any subsequent sounds must be the same.
There are a whole range of ‘near’ rhymes, for example ‘find’ and ‘timed’, ‘back’ and ‘pact’ where the sounds are not identical, but which sound similar. Try and stick to true rhymes as much as possible, especially for any repeated refrain. The more disciplined you are in your rhyme the better your text will read.
- Regional accents
One small note on regional accents. Beware words that are pronounced differently in regional accents. I know of at least one editor who reads texts in a Scottish accent to make sure it still rhymes!
A lot of this takes time and practice, but the more you write the easier it will become!
Oh and the biggest tip for writing in rhyme? Use all that time waiting at bus stops / walking to work to play with different lines in your head. The more you practice ‘thinking’ in rhyme the more natural it will become!
For more information about Catherine Emmett’s newest rhyming Picture books releases see here: https://catherineemmett.co.uk/books/