Villanelles And Story Structure

Villanelles and Story Structure. What do they have in common?

Absolutely nothing.

Well, except for the purely personal connection that I studied them both this week. Also, if you think about it, villanelles have a very rigid structure that- huh. Maybe they do have something in common. But I digress. Or do I? I’m not sure anymore.

Let me start again. This week I discovered a structured form of poetry known as villanelle thanks to Harriet Goodchild, who besides being a talented (and rather terrifyingly clever) author, is also a talented poet. Basically, a villanelle is a poem with five stanzas of three lines, followed by one stanza of four lines (a total of nineteen lines, if you’re counting). According to Wikipedia, “It is structured by two repeating rhymes and two refrains: the first line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza serves as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2″.

Basically, it’s the sudoku of poetry. The second lines of each stanza have to rhyme with each other, as do the first and third (until you get to the sixth stanza, where the first, third and fourth lines all rhyme with each other). It’s incredibly structured, and incredibly difficult to write. (Yes, I tried). It’s also oddly freeing to write, and the structure feels more like a guide than a constraint.

Besides being interesting in it’s own right, it was also interesting to consider the villanelle in light of the fact that I’d been musing on story structure at the start of the week. I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with story structure: partly because I’m primarily a pantser (meaning I most often just sit down and write without doing any planning in writing) and partly because it took so long for me to understand what story structure actually is. I’ve since done a lot of study on the subject (aka, read a lot of books by Steven Brust and Patricia Wrede, and paid special attention to any other book I read where the structure leapt out at me), and it has been borne in on me over the years that the structure of my own books requires more work. Interestingly enough, I received a crash course in structure this week and last, over at Janet Reid’s blog. Janet periodically runs flash fiction contests on her blog, which I love to enter as a form of practise even though I’m seriously outclassed by most of the writers there. I was going over the finalists’ entries a week or so ago, and though quite a few of them aren’t my style of preference for reading, it struck me how very much they could say in very few words (100 words max). This turned my interest from looking for flash fic I liked, to flash fic that really worked, without regard to preferred style.

And that, of course, brought me to structure- for it was the structure of each of the pieces that gave each so much depth. The closest thing I can compare it to is looking in a telescope. There are so few words used, but the effect is wide-ranging and immensely vast. It feels as though there must be so much more than 100 words there. I learn best via reading (and perhaps osmosis of words) and let me tell you, reading those flash fic pieces over the last two weeks has been the schooling of my life. I so much appreciate all those talented writers who enter the contests.

Now we come to the crux of the matter. You want to know if I succeeded in writing a villanelle (shush, child, shush: of course you do). I did write my own villanelle, and it turns out that the only thing I feel really poetical about is my morning cup of tea. (My magnum opus is Ode To A Cockroach (RIP), so that should give you some idea of my poetic range). Therefore, enjoy this villanelle about my first morning cup of tea, and be thankful that there are no insects involved. It has no real rhythm, meter, or in fact merit, but it was fun to write.

The First Cup Of Tea

Cup meeting saucer, bergamot in flight
Amber swirls from the tealeaves and sinks fast
A curl of steam variegated through light

Silence that rings with a chink! clear and bright
Teaspoon abandoned, steam rising ‘gainst glass
Cup meeting saucer, bergamot in flight

Dreams linger gently, away out of sight
Fingers curled ‘round the cup, warm to the last
A curl of steam variegated through light

Plate piled with shortbreads: a secret delight
Beside glazed honey jumbles- saved for last
Cup meeting saucer, bergamot in flight

Eyes flutter shut, open wider and bright
Smile as I savour this morning’s repast
A curl of steam variegated through light

Dappled light playing on walls painted white
First warmth of sunshine through icy-cold glass
Cup meeting saucer, bergamot in flight
A curl of steam variegated through light

2 thoughts on “Villanelles And Story Structure

  1. Thanks! That’s very kind of you 😀 I really am enjoying it. I’ve never made a study of poetry, as such: I love to read poetry, but I write only doggrel. It’s been an eye-opening experience, checking out the different entries on your blog 🙂


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