Saturday, January 17, 2015

Write a Ballad

The ballad is one of the oldest storytelling styles, and it's one you can use to retell any story: The Ballad of the Tortoise and the Hare, The Ballad of Rama and Sita, etc. etc. To get a sense of what ballads are like, you might browse around in the amazing ballad collection by Henry Child: The English and Scottish Ballads, over 300 ballads that you can find at the Sacred Texts website.

There are lots of specific forms that ballads can take, but here are some ideas to keep in mind as you write your own ballad:

Stanzas. A ballad is written in stanzas which are kind of like paragraphs, but unlike paragraphs, stanzas are always the same length. They might be four lines long, or they might be something more complex like the four+three structure you see in the stanzas of the Highwayman example.

Refrain. A refrain is something that repeats from stanza to stanza: sometimes it is just a phrase that repeats, sometimes it is a whole line, or even two whole lines. You might even have a whole stanza that repeats like the chorus of a song.

Rhyme. Usually there is some kind of rhyme scheme for the ballad. Not every line rhymes, but usually in a four-line stanza, there is alternating rhyme, like in the Ballad of Saint Felix:

   Now as Saint Felix, bent and gray,
   Was tottering down the street,
   A band of soldiers, fierce and wild,
   The old man chanced to meet.

Meter. There is usually some kind of meter to create rhythmic patterns. If you look at the Saint Felix stanza there, you will here that the first and third lines go "ta-DA ta-DA ta-DA ta-DA" while the second and fourth lines go "ta-DA ta-DA ta-DA." There are fancy names for this kind of thing (iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter), but you don't really need to worry about the fancy names. Just count the syllables and listen to the rhythm to see what sounds good to you!

If you are curious to learn more about ballads, there is a detailed article at Wikipedia. Meanwhile, have fun experimenting: the ballad form is a lot of fun to work with, and I am sure your readers will enjoy the results!

One of my favorite ballads is The Highwayman. You can see the lyrics here: Highwayman lyrics. You can listen to a beautiful performance of the song by Loreena McKennitt at YouTube:

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