The difficulty in ballad writing lies in the emotional connection made by the writer to a particular piece while constructing a poem with a musical quality. The easy part is knowing a few simple rules about stanzas and rhyme scheme and then deciding whether your ballad will follow or break them.
Ballads usually follow a simple four-line stanza format with an abcb rhyme scheme. This means that each stanza in the poem is comprised of four lines with the second and fourth lines rhyming. The stanza's first and third lines do not rhyme. For example, the first stanza in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge follows the abcb rhyme scheme:
It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three. "By thy long gray beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
A ballad is written in the narrative poem format -- that is, a poem that tells a story. The subject matter is as varied as a writer's imagination, but many ballads relate a sad or tragic tale such as the homeless mother and fatherless child in William Butler Yeats' "The Ballad Of Moll Magee" (first stanza):
Come round me, little childer; There, don't fling stones at me Because I mutter as I go; But pity Moll Magee.
From Narrative Poem to Ballad
The distinction between a narrative poem and ballad lies in the musical element. Ballads are sung or have a musical feel to them; they are songs that tell a story in a specific format. Ballads typically follow a four-line stanza, abcb format and may include a repetitive verse or chorus between stanzas.
Occasionally ballads will follow an abab rhyme scheme in which the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines. Modern day ballads are often comprised of eight-line stanzas with varying rhyme schemes such as that found in the last stanza of Gordon Lightfoot's tragic account of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald":
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral. The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they call 'Gitche Gumee.' Superior, they said, never gives up her dead When the gales of November come early!