How to Write a Ballad
Ballad poems originated with the European folk tradition -- a storytelling practice in which narratives were passed down orally and the lyrics often were accompanied by music. These works were found in print starting during the Renaissance, and eventually the form evolved as a favored form in the 19th century. Ballads tend to be narrative poems that tell romantic, tragic or heroic stories.
Driving the Plot
Ballads are usually plot driven, so before you start writing, think about an event you want to write about. This event can be a personal story or one you find from history. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous ballad “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is about a cursed sailor on a ship during a storm, while Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is about a woman the speaker loves. Consider outlining your story, so you can ensure it follows a plotline that states a problem and resolves it.
Determining a Rhyme Scheme
While ballads vary greatly in rhyme schemes and structure, they do have particular tendencies, such as using four-line stanzas called quatrains and rhyming the second and fourth lines of a stanza. One common rhyme scheme for ballads is ABCB. Poe’s “Annabel Lee” uses six-line stanzas, following a rhyme scheme of ABCBDB, and eight-line stanzas, again rhyming every other line. The last four lines of the poem, however, are two rhyming couplets, or two lines that rhyme. Poe likely used this rhyme technique to punctuate the end of the poem. You can choose to begin writing and see where you can place rhymes, or select a common rhyme scheme, like ABCB, and stick to it. Also decide whether you wish to write in quatrains or vary six- and eight-line stanzas, as Poe does in “Annabel Lee.”
Since ballads originated in an oral tradition often set to music, these poems frequently use repeated lines or entire stanzas, much like a chorus to a song. “The Cruel Mother,” by an anonymous poet, repeats the lines “Fine flowers in the valley” and “And the green leaves they grow rarely” as the second and fourth lines of every stanza. Repetition conveys an important idea or theme to the reader. One other structural item to consider is the poem’s meter. In the English tradition, the first and third lines have four accented syllables, and the second and fourth lines have three stresses. If you write in iambs, which are made of one unaccented followed by an accented syllable, you would alternate lines of eight and six syllables, as found in the famous ballad “Barbara Allen.”
Pulling the Reader In
Originally meant for audiences to hear once and remember, ballads usually use simple language. You could open your poem with a statement using the word “you” to draw the reader into the story. Since the ballad is a narrative poem, use dialogue where appropriate. When you finish a first draft, read your poem aloud to sense if it has a lilting, musical quality. Revise it as necessary to make it feel similar to a song.