How to Write a Narrative Poem: Master an Ancient Craft

Abi Wurdeman
June 8, 2024

Poetry isn’t just for lamenting unrequited love, unpacking social issues, or reflecting on red wheelbarrows glazed with rain water.

Some poems tell a story. A complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.

These are called narrative poems, and you’ve almost definitely read one before.

The Odyssey. Mahabharata. “Anabel Lee.” The Cat in the Hat.

Some of the most famous poems in the world are narrative poems. This form of storytelling has been delighting audiences for ages, even before we had written language.

But why exactly has narrative poetry stood the test of time? What’s so great about it? And how can you master this realm of creative writing yourself?

All good questions, and I’ve got answers. You’re about to discover:

  • What a narrative poem is and isn’t
  • Famous examples of this style of poetry 
  • How to come up with narrative poem ideas
  • How to write a narrative poem
  • Tips for structuring your piece
  • Key steps for refining your poem

Let’s start with a definition.

What is a Narrative Poem?

A book of poetry lays open on a white table beside a closed red book, purple flowers, and a blue and white teacup.

A narrative poem is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a story told using the poetic form.

Which poetic form, you ask? 

Whichever one you want!

You’ll find narrative poems in just about any meter and with any rhyme scheme. (If you don’t know what these words mean, don’t worry. We’re going to cover them.)

You can also find free verse narrative poems, which are poems that buck all the rules about structure and form, for they have no boss and answer only to themselves.

Narrative poetry can be short (about one page long), less short (about the length of a short story), or super long (like a novel).

Clearly, there’s a lot of room for exploration and experimentation in this art form. But as with any genre, there are limits to what qualifies as a narrative poem.

What a Narrative Poem is Not

Though the story is the defining feature of narrative poetry, it is still poetry. That means you can expect the same dazzling symbolism, vivid imagery, and experimental language you’d find in other poems.

That said, narrative poems are definitely in a class of their own, so let’s clarify how they differ from other forms.

Lyric poem - Lyric poetry highlights emotions rather than a narrative. It often focuses on a concrete moment in time, which means it might possess some narrative elements like strong characterization, clear conflict, or a vivid setting.

But a lyric poem doesn’t lay out a series of events, and what happens isn’t as important as how the poet feels. “Love Poem With Apologize for My Appearance” is an example of lyric poetry. It also rocks.

Prose poem - This one is easy to confuse with narrative poetry, because both styles feel like the love child of a poem and a short story. But while a narrative poem is a poem that takes on the narrative elements of a short story, a prose poem takes on its physical attributes. 

That is to say, it’s written in prose, not verse.

A prose poem, like “Bath,” doesn’t tell a story, it just looks like a story on the page, with text organized into paragraphs. 

Characteristics of Narrative Poetry

So we know that in order for a poem to be a narrative poem, it’s gotta tell a story. That’s the defining element. 

But what other characteristics are typical of this style of poetry?

Experimental expression - Narrative poems are still poems. That means finding creative ways to paint a scene or make the intangible tangible. Poets are famous for playing games with language—turning nouns into verbs and coming up with shockingly vivid metaphors. Narrative poetry is no different.

Freedom of form - As I mentioned before, this type of poem can take any form the writer chooses. It can rhyme or not rhyme, abide by a set meter or disregard meter altogether.

Vivid sensory details - Like all other types of poetry, narrative poetry includes concrete details that appeal to all five senses, creating a powerful sense of character, place, and even emotional experiences.

Inner conflict - Every good narrative features both external conflict and internal conflict. But narrative poems tend to put a particularly strong emphasis on inner conflict, highlighting the battle the protagonist must wage within themselves.

Types of Narrative Poetry

Like most literary genres, this one has its own little pile of subgenres. Here are the most common types of narrative poetry:

Epic poem - This is a long narrative poem that tells a tale of heroism. In epic poems, you’re likely to see characters who hold extraordinary positions in their world. We’re talking about kings, warriors, knights, and world-renowned heroes. The gods usually show up, too.

Epic poetry often focuses on battles, real historical events, and other culture-defining occurrences. The Odyssey and Mahabharata fall into this category.

Ballad - Traditionally, a ballad was a narrative poem set to music with the goal of entertaining listeners with a good story. Nowadays, a ballad can be set to music, but it can also just be a narrative poem that has a musical quality, meaning it follows a consistent meter and rhyme scheme. Edgar Allan Poe’s  “Anabel Lee” is a ballad.

Lay/Lai poem - You don’t see a whole lot of lais outside of the Middle Ages. This old-timey narrative poem is written in couplets (two rhyming lines back-to-back) with eight syllables in each line.

Traditionally, lai poems are all about romance, chivalry, and the supernatural.

Idyll poem - Idyll poems paint a picture of the idealized rural life. They tend to be on the shorter side compared to other narrative poems. John Milton’s “L’Allegro” is an idyll poem.

Verse novel - This is a novel written entirely in verse. Most verse novels are written in free verse, like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. But there are more structured works in this category, too. 

Examples of Narrative Poetry

A smiling person in a wide-brimmed hat reads a pink book.

If you’re interested in writing a narrative poem, the first step is to read narrative poems. Tons of them. It’s the best and most efficient way to get familiar with the genre, find inspiration, and strengthen your poet’s intuition.

Here are some narrative poems that deserve a spot on your TBR list: 

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lại - A great example of a verse novel, this poem tells the story of a young Vietnamese refugee navigating her first year in the U.S.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde - In this long narrative poem Wilde recounts an execution that took place while he was incarcerated in the same prison.

“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop - Want an example of a shorter poem that manages to turn a single moment into a narrative complete with internal conflict, a victorious climax, and a thrilling resolution? This is it.

Finding Inspiration

A person sits on a bench holding a laptop and an open notebook, staring thoughtfully into the distance.

Ready to write a narrative poem yourself?

The first step is, of course, to come up with an idea. If you don’t already have a compelling tale in mind, don’t worry. Inspiration is everywhere.

Do you have a great idea for a short story? Or have you already written one? Try writing the same story as a narrative poem. This can be a fun writing exercise that helps you play with figurative language and explore your story from a new angle.

You can also draw inspiration from history, mythology, or your own personal experience.

Or start with a mood! Narrative poems tend to embrace the dramatic, leaning into romance, wonder, horror, or adventure. Ask yourself what kind of atmosphere you’d like to create, then imagine a scene that epitomizes that mood. Build from there.

Don’t worry if your brainstorm feels more like a sprinkle at first. Keep playing and imagining without judgment, and you’ll eventually stumble upon the perfect idea.

Writing a Narrative Poem

A person sits cross-legged on a low marble wall in a park, writing in a notebook.

Once you’ve got a great idea in mind, it’s time to start writing.

In terms of content, this is going to be a lot like writing a short story. You’ll need to develop all the same narrative elements, including characters, conflict, and setting.

Then the next challenge is learning how to express those elements in a poetic form. 

Don’t worry if any of this feels a little intimidating. We’re going to tackle this together, bit by bit, starting with voice.

Establishing the Narrative Voice

Having a clear narrative voice is just as important in narrative poems as it is in prose. Whether the narrator is meant to be you, a character in the story, or some nameless unknown being, there should be some sense of personality in the way this storytelling shares their tale.

How does the narrator feel about the events in this story? How do they communicate that point of view? Do they make jokes? Lean into the drama? Maintain a formal distance? 

Details like diction, rhythm, rhyme, and tone will help you out a lot here. You can learn more about voice in this article.

Developing Characters

Character development is as crucial in narrative poetry as it is in novels. You’ve got to know who your characters are, what they want, and what motivates them. You need to drill into their deepest fears and weaknesses and decide how they’ll change over the course of the story.

If you could use a hand with crafting your characters, here’s an amazing template that covers just about everything.

Setting the Scene

Where and when does your narrative poem take place? 

Your setting influences just about everything, including the atmosphere, physical obstacles, cultural context, and imagery. It reveals who your characters are, whether they’re at home in their setting or seem uncomfortably out of place.

So take the time to design your setting thoughtfully. Then, when it comes time to describe it, choose vivid language to bring this world to life for your readers.

Developing the Plot

The complexity of your plot will depend on the length of your poem and vice versa. These factors can also determine whether or not you’d like to bother outlining before you write. 

You probably don’t need an outline to draft a two-page poem. But if you’re writing an epic complete with subplots, you could probably benefit from a little planning.

However long or complex your poem may be, you’ll need these plot elements at the very least:

  • An inciting incident that sets the conflict in motion and forces the protagonist outside their comfort zone
  • A series of events that heighten the conflict and challenge the protagonist
  • A climax in which the protagonist makes a difficult, risky decision 
  • Some kind of resolution that demonstrates how the protagonist and/or their world is different because the story happened

If you’d like more specific guidance, you can explore different story structures here.

Incorporating Imagery

A boat drifts on glassy water at sunset as lightning strikes in the distance.

Poetry is famous for vivid imagery. Not just vivid imagery, actually—unique imagery. 

Of course, it’s best to avoid clichés in any form of creative writing. But poets in particular tend to avoid “ruby red lips,” “shine like diamonds,” and other overused descriptive phrases.

Instead, you’ll find unexpected metaphors and descriptions that have been artfully crafted to convey underlying themes. You know, things like “dainty charcoal feet” (“Hummingbirds”) and  “...that little tent of blue / which prisoners call the sky” (The Ballad of Reading Gaol).

So whether you’re describing a setting, character, or action, remember to keep it clear, concrete, and creative. 

Exploring Rhyme Schemes and Meters

As you know by now, you can use any rhyme scheme and meter you want for your narrative poem. 

Quick primer in case you’re not familiar with those terms:

Meter refers to the rhythmic pattern of a line of poetry. That rhythm is formed by the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. 

For example, sonnets are written in a meter called iambic pentameter, which means each line contains ten syllables with the emphasis on every second syllable. 

This is a line from a sonnet, with the emphasized syllables in bold:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

This next line contains ten syllables but isn’t in iambic pentameter, because check out how bonkers it would sound if you emphasized every second syllable: 

“I’m afraid we are out of potatoes.”

Rhyme scheme refers to the pattern of rhyming words in a poem. 

In an ABCB scheme, the second and fourth lines (the B lines) rhyme, like this:

A) Because I could not stop for Death –
B) He kindly stopped for me –
C) The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
B) And Immortality.
–“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is written in an ABCBDB scheme.

When it comes to your own narrative poem, you can do whatever you like. Research different meters and rhyme patterns and pick what makes sense to you. Or write in free verse. Or follow a set rhyming structure without worrying about meter. Or maintain a consistent meter without worrying about rhyme (that’s called blank verse).

Do whatever you want; just make it a deliberate choice.

Playing With Poetic Elements

Rhyme and meter aren’t the only ways you can create a sense of rhythm in narrative poetry. Explore some of these other poetic devices to craft a story that’s as delightful to the ear as it is to the brain:

Alliteration - This is when several words closely connected words start with the same sound. Click here for an absolutely absorbing article on alliteration.

Assonance - This term (that always makes me giggle) refers to the repetition of vowel sounds among closely connected words. This can include vowel sounds that happen in the middle of words, like “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” 

Consonance - Same idea as assonance, only this involves repeating consonant sounds, like in “pitter-patter.” That little phrase actually contains three examples of consonance between the “p,” “t,” and “r” sounds.

Repetition - You probably worked this one out on your own, but repetition is when you use a word or phrase repeatedly. Wilde busted this little maneuver out in the very first lines of The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead…”

Strong opening, right? Immediate sense of rhythm, lots of follow-up questions. 

Play around with these devices. Look for places that could use a rhythmic pick-me-up. If you’re having trouble recognizing such places, just try adding a little consonance here, a little repetition, there. 

You can always edit these things out later. In the meantime, you’ll learn best by practicing.

The Structure of Narrative Poems

A hand holds a book of poetry open beside another open book of poetry, a white teacup, and white flowers all on a delicate white tablecloth.l

So here’s something fun about poetry:

Before written language, stories were often told as narrative poems because the rhyme, meter, and structure made them easier to remember. It’s kinda like how most people can hear a song for the first time and have the chorus memorized before the song ends.

Of course, we have written language now, which means you don’t have to worry about structuring your narrative poem well enough for people to memorize it and pass it down to the next generation orally. So yay for that.

However, I still recommend making deliberate choices about the way you lay out your poem. Let’s discuss.

Choosing Your Form

If you’re serious about mastering narrative poetry, do a deep dive on whatever type of narrative poem speaks to you. If you love ballads, read a ton of ballads and get to know the conventions of the subgenre. If you dream of writing a modern story in free verse, find poets who have done the same.

Then take what you’ve learned from the work you’ve read and get cracking on your own narrative poem.

If you’re not sure what form you want to write in, just pick one and try it. I guarantee it won’t be a waste of your time, even if you never write another poem in that form again. This type of experimentation forces you to create within specific structures, and that’s going to open new creative doors in your writerly brain.

Pacing and Rhythm

Another thing to keep in mind as you shape your narrative poem is your desired pacing and rhythm. 

This is a story, after all. There will be moments of tension and moments of reflection. You may have battle scenes, love scenes, or unspeakable horrors waiting to emerge from the shadows.

That’s why it’s so valuable to have a solid grasp of the poetic devices we discussed. You might be locked into the same meter and rhyming pattern for the entire poem, but you can use repetition to make things feel more light and playful. You can use percussive consonance to convey urgency or assonance to slow things down.

And if you’re not locked into a specific poetic form, you can even experiment with abrupt line breaks or mid-sentence stanza breaks.

Play around. Get crazy. See what you discover.

Refining Your Narrative Poem

Two people stand together in a park, discussing something written on a sheet of paper.

We here at DabbleU are always telling you to read your work out loud during the revision process, no matter what you’re writing.

But while that’s a fantastic tip for revising novels (seriously, do it), it’s an absolute must for narrative poems.

Poetry exists not just to convey ideas, but to be heard and felt, even if we’re only hearing it in our minds. And narrative poetry is no different. So read it aloud, feel the rhythm, and listen for opportunities to improve it.

Once you’ve done all the revisions you can do on your own, share your work with fellow poets and poetry readers. Ask them for honest feedback and apply the notes that make sense to you.

After a final proofread, you’re ready to think about publication, whether that means submitting your short poem to a literary magazine or querying agents about your verse novel.

Of course, those steps aren’t mandatory. You can also just keep your narrative poem to yourself, basking in the thrill of a new and hard-earned creative success.

What Do You Want to Learn Next?

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Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.