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Narrative Poetry: Maximum Flexibility, Full-On Story, Gripping Protagonist by Melanie Faith


Why Narrative Poetry is the Genre
You Should Explore Next




o you like a protagonist you can root for? Or see yourself in? Or wonder about even months later? A juicy conflict or two? Vivid imagery? Intriguing settings? Me, too. Think I’m describing your favorite binge-worthy streaming show or an award-nominated big-screen movie? Nope. It’s all there in narrative poetry, my friend.

So what is narrative poetry exactly?

Simply put, it’s poetry that tells a compelling story. Like all poetry, narrative work integrates poetic techniques, such as stanzas, line breaks, rhythm, and similes and/or metaphors. Narrative poetry carries historical significance as well as exciting options for poets in the 21 century.

I love the elasticity of the form. It can be comprised of individual short poems with just a handful of lines each, a series of longer linked poems with sections, or even an epic of several hundred pages.

You’ve probably encountered narrative poetry without thinking much about it being called that if you’ve ever taken an English, writing, humanities, classics, or history class that assigned literature like Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; if you’ve enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or my favorite, “Annabel Lee;” Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess;” Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” or Rita Dove’s exquisite collection, Thomas and Beulah. (If you haven’t read some of these, feel free to use these examples and ones below to inspire your reading.)

While there are clearly plenty of examples of this genre from long ago, narrative poetry is a very open vessel for today’s poetry as well. Ellen Hopkins writes in narrative poetry form in her bestselling YA books, such as Glass, Perfect, and Tilt, which are often called novels in verse, and Colby Cedar Smith’s Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit is written in verse as well. Whether the poems are written as single, stand-alone poetry from a character’s voice or about a character, as in Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” or in a chapbook-length collection of around 15 or 20 pages, or in a full collection, narrative poetry has a focused, compelling point-of-view.

Narrative poetry also covers an exciting breadth and depth of subject matter, from love and lost love, travel, larger-than-life quests of both the outer and inner variety, addiction and recovery, identity, important social issues and social movements, familial heritage (as in Call Me Athena), and, as in my latest narrative poetry collection, Does It Look Like Her?, explorations of topics as diverse as ambition at midlife, finding fulfillment and joy in the artistic process, cultivating community among artists as an educator, and what it means to be an artist in a society not conducive to art-making.

If you have a topic or theme you’d like to write about, you are on your way to beginning as a narrative poet.

Does It Look Like Her? By Melanie Faith

What elements do narrative poems utilize to great effect?

I’ll offer tips and tell you a little about my personal writing experience as well.

Create compelling characters, especially a protagonist.

I begin my narrative poems by dreaming up a protagonist. Often, the initial narrative poem is either from the character’s first-person POV or is about the character from third-person POV. My protagonist Alix, a new artist and 40-something teacher and mother of a young son named Sam, started speaking to me on the page about her life experiences, both good and challenging. I realized while writing the first poems that Alix had sat for a successful artist whose portrait of her becomes well known. This raised many compelling questions I couldn’t wait to explore as the poems kept arriving, as I am neither a painter nor a mother, but I am an educator and have spent much of my life practicing arts, including photography (another visual medium) and writing.

I hadn’t pre-written any information about Alix before writing the initial poems (I’m more of a pantser than a plotter in my first drafts), but some narrative poets prefer to do a quick list of qualities/descriptors, make a vision board, or free-write as pre-writing for their poems, which can also work well. I wrote into the mystery of who Alix was and what she needed, missed, loved, and wanted. It was fun braiding the similarities we share (a passion for art and self-expression, our age, enjoyment in the artistic process, ambition) and the many qualities we don’t.

Feel free to sprinkle in dialogue or to write dramatic monologues as well.

Add hot water (aka: antagonists and conflicts) to put your protagonist immediately under pressure.

Dynamic characters need to be in the midst of change. Not thinking about change, but right in medias res, dog-paddling in the pool of hot water, chin barely bobbing above the surface. As when writing fiction, you need conflict. Include a person, place, event, or thing like social expectations (or multiple of these) that push against a protagonist to test her mettle.

A combination of external and interior conflicts makes an even stronger conflict.

Alix’s primary antagonist is her ex, James, and his new love, but even more importantly Alix also struggles to find her place as a painter in a world that prefers youth. She also struggles with having the energy to parent her son while figuring out how she feels about being the focus of a famous painting while not yet realizing her own potential as an artist. These antagonists gave the narrative poems multiple levels of momentum, and as the poet they offered me many exciting conflicts and narrative threads to explore.

Populate their world...with supporting characters and vivid imagery.

As in fiction, your poetic characters will need support. I had a blast writing a coworker friend for Alix named Meghan (with an h, which was a fun detail that popped into my head while drafting) and bringing Alix’s young son, Sam, forward to speak in his own words. Three of the poems explore Sam’s view of the painting of his mom at age eight, then again at age twenty as a college student, and at age thirty-nine. There’s also poetry from the varied points of view of Sam’s dad/Alix’s ex, Sam’s teacher, a stranger who visits the art gallery, and the well-known artist who made the portrait. In narrative poetry, supporting characters can appear in just one poem or two, to shed light on the protagonist’s struggles and eventual growth.

As with all types of poetry, imagery is key. Adding visual details about painting, the materials used to paint, the scene where Alix visits the painting of herself on display, her birthday breakfast at home that young Sam tries to cook, and clues about what the painting might look like fleshed out Alix’s world. These images also fulfill the resonance and symbolism visual imagery provides within poetry. Simple, direct imagery, such as a bowl of soup and a bowl of sweetened cereal in the poem, “In Which Alix Decides Not to Paint a Thing That Weekend,” underscores her frustration as both an artist striving to grow and also as a newly single mom.

Explore visual images that symbolize your protagonist’s goals and challenges, contributing to their characterization.

Play with time(s) and place(s).

Narrative poetry gives the author great freedom for writing scenes in present day, in history, or even to move back and forth through time (offering brief flashbacks or demonstrating cause and effect and character growth), as I did with my poems about Sam at various ages. There are also poems in the book from before and after Alix appeared in the famous painting and before, during, and after finding her vocations as an artist and an educator.

Narrative poetry might cover one specific event or span decades or even centuries. You could also choose one decade/era/event to write narrative poetry about; I did this with a narrative poetry collection I wrote a few years ago called Catching the Send-Off Train that is set during WWII and in another narrative collection, This Passing Fever, set in a small American town during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Shake it up!

Order, fabulous reorder—the first poems you draft don’t have to be the opening to a collection at all. In fact, one or two poems I wrote very late in my drafting now appear in the first section of my book.

Also, as I wrote more and more poems in Does It Look Like Her?, I realized that two poems from another recent project worked better for this collection, so they were added. I also omitted seven or eight poems from the draft that I intuitively knew were no longer needed for the story; they were just drafts for me to better understand Alix, her family, and her motivations as a creative artist.

I recommend writing at least three or four poems before sitting down to make notes about developing the protagonist further. Once you have several poems, you’ll get into the groove of the character’s life and the main conflicts the protagonist faces, and writing the poems will show you what you can do to deepen character development as you go.


As a writer, I appreciate that narrative poetry is a combination of storytelling elements from fiction—character growth, plot, conflict, supporting characters, setting—with the attention to precise language choices and beautiful imagery and development of theme that poetry brings. It’s a poetic genre that affords maximum flexibility while offering both writer and reader a process of discovery. Win-win.

Consider reading widely in this underutilized genre and then creating your own characters to populate the narrative-poetry universe sometime soon.



Melanie Faith enjoys old-school film cameras, quotes, ASMR videos about maps and books, that new-shoes feeling, thoughtfulness, and spending time with fellow writers and her nieces. Does It Look Like Her? (February 2024) is her most recent narrative poetry collection. Melanie loves teaching for Women on Writing. Vine Leaves Press has published six of her writing craft books about such diverse topics as publishing, flash fiction, poetry, photography, teaching online, and writing a research book. She has also written a Regency novella and several other narrative poetry collections. In addition to numerous photography publications, her instructional articles about creative writing techniques have appeared in The Writer and Writers' Journal, among others. To learn more about Melanie’s writing, teaching, editing, and photography, please visit:, X/Twitter: @writer_faith, and Instagram: @frompromisingtopublished99.


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