Congrats! You passed Meter 101 in my last post and you’re ready to move into master class territory. Today we’ll look at two common metrical problems in drafting children’s books: forced emphasis and over-consistency (yes, there is such a thing).
METER MISHAP #1: EMPHASIS
I remember watching my then three-year-old daughter do a puzzle. The bright angles of the pieces came together to form a picture—all except for one section, into which she had shoved the last piece, upside-down and backwards, into the empty spot. She slammed her fist on top of the defiant puzzle piece, forcing a precarious fit. “Got it!”
Careless writers can treat meter this way, forcing syllabic emphasis where there is none. Take, for example, the following line:
“Who dares bother my rest?” cried the dragon.
Let’s say you’re trying to hammer out a line of iambic pentameter. “The line I wrote has 10 syllables,” you reason, “so there’s a good chance every other one is stressed—right?”
Only if you’re giving it an awkward and forceful reading, like this:
“Who DARES boTHER my REST?” cried THE draGON.
“Dares” and “rest” might work, but “the” is almost never important enough to be stressed. Also, we say “BOther” and “DRAgon,” with the emphasis on the first syllable, not the second. If you’re counting on the line you just wrote to be iambic, it’s not happening.
Luckily, rearrange a few words and you’ve got a metrical winner:
“Who DARES disTURB my REST?” the DRAgon CRIED.
See why this works? Now the emphasis is natural. Yes, you might have to rework some rhymes (you really wanted to rhyme “dragon” and “flagon,” didn’t you?), but preserving a natural meter makes for a better read.
METER MISHAP #2: SINGSONG REGULARITY
A dogmatic insistence on perfect meter and congruity of syllables will please your ancient English teacher, but it’s not going to do much for kids.
You only have to look as far as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to know how fun a little metrical variation can be. Look carefully at the stressed (/) and unstressed (u) syllables in this stanza:
See what he’s done here? The first three lines are more or less iambic tetrameter (unstressed/stressed pattern with four feet), but the last line is iambic trimeter (3 feet, or stresses). Not only that, Carroll’s playing with clever variations, like throwing two emphasized words in the second line, and a charming little stutter-step in the doubly unstressed “by the” in the third line. Does his metrical variation do anything to ruin the poem? Not a bit—Carroll’s rhyme is consistent and the slightly varied meter, if anything, makes it even more delightful to read aloud.
Consider what a lesser poet might have done to maintain a “perfect” meter:
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
The manxome foe he ever sought –
So rested he by yonder tree,
And stood a moment, lost in thought.
Sure, it’s correct, but it’s paint-by-numbers bland. Children deserve better!
Bottom line? Do your homework. Read your work aloud. Read it again, and again, and again. And don’t be afraid to take risks with your meter when the occasion calls for it. Remember that meter is never the point of your story—it’s merely another way to bring your tale to life.
Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.
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