A ballad is a traditional form of long, narrative poetry, sometimes set to music. Whether writing one for a school assignment, or just for fun, ballads can be great way to tell a story or honor an event in a memorable way.
The term comes from the French ballade, which means “dancing song". Ballads usually rhyme, although the scheme is the choice of the writer. Quatrains are a common structure, yet this depends on the builder. Sometimes ballads feature a refrain or other repetition. While structural elements vary, what is common to all ballads is a story. A ballad is meant to communicate a tale to an audience in a vivid and memorable manner.
The ballad's roots go deep into European oral tradition. In the middle ages, traveling performers would recite or sing ballads all across the continent. These stories served both as communication and entertainment. A rhyming poem was an easy way to remember and pass on news.
As literacy spread throughout Europe, hand-written copies of ballads were commonly distributed. After the invention of the printing press, the ballad exploded in popularity. On a single large sheet of paper, artists would print their verses and illustrations. A popular tune would be suggested for a rhythm. These sheets were known as “broadsides". They are the forerunner of the pamphlet and the chapbook.
From the Streets to the Scholars
As light began to shine on the Dark Ages, prominent writers took what the peasants were hearing on the street corners and made it their own, combining more polished language with a form more free than the popular sonnet. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, from the end of the fourteenth century, is a collection of narratives-in-verse with various speakers.
In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge collaborated on Lyrical Ballads and a Few Other Poems. This work went against the practice of featuring great royal, historical or mythological characters. Rather, simple country folk were commonly the subjects. This collection includes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, perhaps the world's best known ballad.
Lewis Carroll brought his childish and playful style to the ballad form in The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem was inside of Through the Looking-Glass, published in 1872.
Francis J. Child
Between 1882 and 1898, Child published his ten volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. He investigated the entire history of the ballad, including printed and oral, across thirty-seven languages. He included notes on music, historical figures, mythology and cultural variations. Overall, Child includes 305 ballads. This work is considered the definitive text on the history of ballads.
How to Write
Find your Story
To write your own ballad, you must begin by establishing your story. So free-write, as I always say. Start in a general direction and detail the events in your narrative. Feel free to wander off on tangents. Dwell on particular details. Write and write until you've created original descriptions. Remember that great storytelling involves making your reader feel involved. Don't just tell them what happened, but immerse them in your sensory world.
This is a good time to break away from your normal notebook routine. Get a large easel or a sheet of butcher paper. Use a white-board or a chalk-board, but please take a picture before you erase. Give yourself a large space to write. Splash your plot, setting and characters across it.
Now find what's important to your narrative. When telling a story in verse, you have limited words, so be concise. Have a clear line of plot. Select very few central characters. Know what sensory details support your theme. Scrap everything non-essential.
Choose a Form
While stanza length and rhyme scheme are your choice, historical balladeers have formed a few patterns. Stanzas have often been four, six or eight lines each. Sometimes authors have varied the length of stanzas within a work. Rhyming has commonly been ABAB or ABCB with lots of near-rhyme and sight rhyme. Some writers have used refrains or other repetition.
Take your favorite small piece from your free-writing and see what form it wants. Maybe you have a great beginning. Let that segment tell you stanza length and rhyme scheme. Definitely read your work aloud. This is a piece of oral communication as much as a piece for the page. It needs to sound right. Also, it's a song, so some sort of repetition should carry the reader or listener along.
The Challenge of Dialogue
Writing a poem about a conversation is quite tricky. Using a limited number of syllables and a restrictive form makes clear dialogue challenging.
First, limit the number of characters. Any more than two speaking at once is nearly impossible for your audience to discern. Clearly establish a brief name or title for each. In my Cathartes Aura series, almost no one has a name longer than one syllable.
Second, keep your speech tight. Boil each character's words down to the bone. Be punchy. Chop extraneous stuff. Also, only deliver the most telling details about facial expressions, body language and motion.
Third, consider alternating stanzas between characters. Allow your audience to get used to your pattern and style.
Long but not Too Long
What will you do with this poem? Are you preparing it for a school assignment? Check with your teacher on the length requirements.
Do you plan to recite it at an event? Beware not to stretch it out too long and bore your listeners. Almost every live poetry reading has a time guideline. Don't be the one who brings a five-minute poem for a three-minute slot. Also, don't rush it too fit time. Better to have two minutes of verse and take your time, allowing for audience reaction, than read too fast and lose your listeners.
Do you intend it for print? Know your plot-line and tell your story at the right pace. Don't spend too much time on one section. I use the old five-act play format. Have your introduction, body and conclusion fit in equal measure. Place your tipping-point and climax in the right places.
- On a large sheet of paper or other broad space, free-write about a dramatic story.
- Establish your two main characters. Detail their backgrounds and motivation. Write a distinct voice for each.
- What symbols and themes contribute to the meaning of your narrative? List them and keep the list handy.
- Choose a stanza length and rhyme scheme, then rewrite a passage with a different form.
- Select a line or phrase that defines your story. Find a way to repeat it in your work.
- Once you've written a draft of your ballad, rewrite it with a different narrator.