This is the first in a series of blogs about how to write brilliant rhyming picture books by Catherine Emmett.  This first instalment covers the thing that I found trickiest when I first started to write – how to write with good METRE, which is also sometimes called scansion.

What is metre and why is it so important?

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 read it smoothly.

What is metre?

Metre refers to the pattern of stressed syllables in a sentence.  So, consider 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 predictable stressed syllable pattern.  

How do you know how many syllables a word has?

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 will show you how many syllables a word has – it also shows if there is a different way to pronounce a word. 

What is a stressed syllable?

The stressed syllable is the ‘beat’ of a word that is naturally emphasised when the word is spoken out loud.  It can sometimes be tricky to work out which is the stressed syllable.  www.dictionary.com can again help with this – as can shouting the word loudly and seeing which syllable you shout longest and loudest.

What pattern of stressed syllables should I use?

I’ve been asked this a lot, so I recently undertook some research to better understand what the most common metre patterns are in picture books.  I know which patterns I tend to use, but was curious as to what others tend to utilise.  As I don’t have access to market data (and I rather doubt it exists), I used my children’s books shelves as a proxy. 

Of their 207 fiction picture books, 79 were rhyming (of these, 16 were written by Julia Donaldson).

Of those books, the majority (approx. 28%) had 11 syllables per line and used a metre pattern where there were two unstressed syllables in between each stressed syllable (u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s/u/u/s).

The next most common pattern (approx. 22% of the total) had 14 syllables per line (or split across 2 lines) with an alternating stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed syllable alternated with one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s).

The next most common pattern (approx. 11% of books) used an 8-beat line with the same alternating stressed syllable pattern – i.e. where each stressed syllable alternated with one unstressed syllable (u/s/u/s/u/s/u/s).

Of the rest, just under 10% had a syllable count that varied per row, so for example, 3 rows of 8 beats and then one of 11 beats.

A large chunk, approximately 27% of the total, used a metre pattern which changed throughout the book.  It is worth noting that many of these particular books were written by Julia Donaldson, who often uses metre patterns that are non-constant. Check out ‘The Highway Rat’ by Julia and Axel Scheffler for a good example of this.

Should I change metre patterns to add interest?

Establishing a strong metre and writing a story that reads naturally in that metre is not an easy thing to do.  I personally don’t see any need to vary the metre to add interest and the majority of books don’t.  However, given Julia Donaldson sometimes does, and given she represents approximately a quarter of picture books sold each year, maybe this is an error on my part! 

I think you should listen to your story and let it come out in whatever metre suits it.  If the story demands a change in pace or metre as it progresses, then so be it.  I’d let the story lead the metre rather than the other way around. 

Do some words ALWAYS get stressed?

Not always.  Sometimes if you change a sentence a little you change which words would get stressed.   It’s important to keep reading your story out loud to make sure that the metre is working, especially as you edit it.

How do I know if my metre is working?

As I mentioned above, it is super important to keep reading your work out loud as you write. However, it’s very easy to ’force’ a metre on your work as you write. YOU know that a stress should be there, so YOU stress it every time you read the story. But would someone else?

The best tips I have for checking your metre are:

  • Write the text out as a piece of prose, i.e. without the line breaks.  This tends to show up bad metre much more quickly. 
  • Ask someone else to read your work – if someone reads your work having not heard it read out loud before, then it is a good bet your metre is working.
  • Better yet find a ‘new’ reader.  My 5yr son has just started reading, but he will very quickly pick up the rhythm when the metre is good.  He will equally quickly NOT pick up the rhythm when the metre is BAD.  

If you have other questions on metre then come follow me on Twitter at @Emmett_cath.  I’m a stressed syllable geek so am always happy to talk metre!

Happy writing!

About the author:

www.catherineemmett.co.uk ‘King of the Swamp’ out NOW!

You can order at the below link!


Origin Story: