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Differences between poetry and fiction

3 November 2010

My recent switch from writing mostly poetry to writing mostly fiction has had me thinking about the differences between the two, and what I get out of writing in each genre.

I figure that writing poetry is a way to make sense of the world. It’s a collection of small moments, of minutiae, of emotion and how we use and respond to emotion.  We use it to focus in on one aspect, on details, and we come away with the knowledge that through those details, we have discovered something new about ourselves.

Fiction is a way to make sense of people. It’s a character study, rather than an emotive study, and lets us sort out how people and minds work. How we fit ourselves into the world, and how we view and categorise others.

It’s also, for me, a less structured writing, where I am free to play with words and phrases, piece together odd fragments, or use elements like repetition or alliteration for emphasis. By contrast, fiction is structured. Characters make actions, which have consequences. The story starts, it has a middle, and it finishes. It has directional pull. It makes us ask, “what happens next?”

In my life, I have started to switch from examining moments to observing people, and this reflects my recent writing habits.  I am also seeking structure and routine, which again reflects my switch to fiction. Writing stories can lead me somewhere that writing poetry cannot. I still write poetry, but I’ve been finding myself writing character sketches, scenes, and beginnings of stories more than I have been writing contained verse.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 November 2010 09:16

    Yeah, poetry is great practice for a prose writer. It helps you practice rhythm, metaphor, imagery and logical progression. It’s kinda light doing weights for a football player. He never has to lift weights on the field, but now that his arms are stronger he can do some major damage to the quarter back. If that makes any sense. I’m glad you’ve found love for fiction. I love it too. 🙂

  2. 13 January 2011 03:24

    “Fiction is a way to make sense of people. It’s a character study, rather than an emotive study, and lets us sort out how people and minds work. How we fit ourselves into the world, and how we view and categorise others.”

    I think parts of this are definitely true (“Fiction is a way to make sense of people.”) Even if you’re writing science fiction about aliens, I think that’s still true. But I don’t think that it’s always a character study. There are books and writers that do that, but some are more trying to make sense of people en masse, as it were, not one at a time. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, it certainly about people, but I wouldn’t describe it as a character study. In fact, Tyrone Slothrop, the apparent protagonist, vanishes for a lot of the book, and Pynchon doesn’t give most of the characters a lot of depth (and then he further distances us from them by the goofy names and so on).

    Anyway, just a thought. I think you’re right about what fiction writers are trying to do, but they get there in different ways.

  3. davidmeeker permalink
    14 February 2015 10:34

    I like what you’e said here. I’ve always thought that those who write fiction understand and make sense of the word through narratives (stories), where poets find meaning in moments, details, or possibly even language itself. Obviously, this is a big generalization. There are, after all, narrative poets. There’s Virginia Woolf. Still, I think this truth holds true most of the time. Good fiction writers, in my experience, are rarely ever good poets, though they often try. And vice-versa. And I believe it’s because of the reason stated above. I, for one, can’t write a story to save my life. I get lost in the details, in the small moments, and basically become disinterested in the story. I have no idea how to write dialogue effectively. At best, my stories are prose poems. I’m a little bothered by the analogy to the football player lifting weights mentioned above. Sorry, but poetry is so much more than an exercise people do to become better fiction writers. Poetry is, in my opinion, the most crystallized form of language we have. And it is immensely difficult because not only every word counts, but every syllable, every word placement. It’s sound and meaning. There’s more music, in other words, more breath to poetry. It’s not even fair to compare the two, really, because they aim for different bars (to use a pole vaulting analogy), but I feel compelled to respond.

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