Call this a crossover post. It’s about writing, but it concerns verse, whether poetry or song, so I think it fits on Fridays.
Occasionally, especially in fantasy literature, there may be need for a song or poem. Some authors will insert the lyrics of songs (real or fictional) into the narrative as a way to set the scene or build the world, while others might instead use poetic verse at the beginning of a chapter or elsewhere. Either way, that’s where we’re going today.
First off, let me just say this: if you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to poetry and songwriting, you probably shouldn’t bother. A lot of readers simply don’t care, and they’ll skip over the verse portions to get back to the text. I mean, how many people read all the songs in Lord of the Rings? (And this whole post is basically Tolkien’s fault, if you think about it.)
But let’s say you want to give it a shot. Okay. Good for you. Why? That’s not me being facetious; it’s a serious question. You need to ask yourself why you want to do this in the first place. Is it to make the world seem more “real”? To inject a bit of humor? To show off your skills? Your reasoning will play a large role in determining the most appropriate time and place for inserting verse into narrative.
Timing is everything. If you are putting excerpts of in-story verse into your creation, then you want to do it at the right time. Probably not near the climax, for example. Instead, early on might be better, when there’s not as much action going on. Call it the story’s downtime. (Another option is introducing the song or poem early, then using it as a plot point later on. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, does this to great effect with “The Rains of Castamere”.)
Rock and roll fantasy
Genre also plays a big role, and this extends beyond written stories, into video and audio productions. Fantasy, of course, will tend to have “period” music, which almost always means folksy rhyming couplets sung by bards with lutes. For futuristic science fiction, the trope seems to be a kind of electronic fusion style, with non-Western instruments played over computer-generated beats, rarely with lyrics.
Subverting these expectations, of course, can be genuinely useful, even if only for humor. Imagine, if you will, a space station where the music of choice is country, or a medieval-style culture whose favorite style is battle rap. (That could even be the basis of a magic system, come to think of it.) Plenty of opportunity both for inserting lyrics into the narrative and creating something unique.
On a more serious note, the style does play a role. Tolkien’s endless songs set the tone of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Drinking songs, for instance, illustrate the camaraderie and shared culture of the people singing them—maybe they’ll one day turn into anthems. Epic poetry might not work as well as simple prose for an infodump, but it does twice the work: not only do you learn about the world, but you get a little more immersed in it.
Not another love song
Song and verse can also be a way of learning about the characters. This might work better in modern-day settings, where you can simply use real-world song titles, or future eras of even heavier musical herding. But even the Middle Ages had its songwriters, right?
Romance is the obvious reasoning for this. Honestly, I have to admit that I can’t come up with too many more. Still, it’s an interesting avenue, and it gives you a reason to showcase less-than-stellar songwriting. After all, if the character isn’t that good, then what better way to illustrate that fact than by showing how bad he really is?
Dreams and songs
All this mostly applies to songs, but it can work for poems, too. In a purely visual medium, they’re practically the same thing. And it’s a lot easier to say that pitiful attempt at rhyme you wrote to impress a girl was just a poem, not something meant to be set to music.
Poems, however, can also work somewhere else in a story, somewhere songs can’t: in literature. Here, I’m talking about “internal” literature, that of the setting’s culture. In fantasy settings, where literacy is presumed to be rarer than today, poetry might be more common than prose as a window into the past. (Think Beowulf, for instance, then convert that to the setting’s assumptions.) A well-timed verse could even hold a clue to a mystery, or a secret.
Whatever you choose, whatever purpose you give your story verses, the best advice I can give is simple: don’t overdo it. And if you’re not sure what you’re doing, that might be further simplified to: don’t do it. It takes a skilled hand to toss something like that into a story and not make it look out of place. Give it a reason to exist. Make it worth reading. Don’t throw 15 stanzas into a scene because Tolkien did it. (Even I skipped that one!)
Used judiciously, verse can work. It can give a story a depth that is hard to achieve any other way. The hardest part is knowing how to use it.