A little while ago I did a blog on what can be learned from studying various kinds of storytelling. It occurs to me, however, that I missed an important medium.
Music and Poetry.
I group these together because one can argue that poetry is musical lyrics without the music. They both employ very similar means for conveying ideas. From here on out I'm going to use the term 'poetry' but I want you to keep in mind that all of it applies to music, too. If you struggle to find poetry that you like, try reading the lyrics to some of your favourite songs. Read them without the music, though. You might even discover something new about your favourite music.
So what makes poetry different from prose - and this is the reason I left it out orginally - is that storytelling in poetry is very different. While there are obvious exceptions (A Visit from Saint Nick, The Owl and The Pussycat, The Illiad,) poetry is generally quite light on narrative. There is a narrative, but poetry tends to focus on very concise, very short narratives and explore them in great depth. You don't go into poetry expecting the same beginning, middle and end of a story that you expect from, say, a novel.
Ode to a Grecian Urn, for example, does not make a big deal of narrative. It's a description of an urn and that is all it wants to be. The Raven, on the other hand, has a far more obvious narrative, but for how long The Raven is, not much happens. The narrator sits and reads, hears a knock, opens a door, talks to a bird and then he dies (spoiler alert.) The sequence of events in poetry tends to be less important than the expression of ideas within that narrative.
Then if that's the case, what does poetry offer us prose writing storytellers?
That's easy. Good prose is often poetic. It's not purple, but it is still poetic. Specifically, when your story slows down, when you want to have those intimate moments with your characters and their environment, when the plot takes a coffee break and you want to dwell on the fine details of the moment, this is when you can best apply the lessons of poetry.
In all of literature, the best use of symbolism, the best metaphors and similes are all found in poetry. The most evocative and emotional writing is found in poetry. That's what poets do. That's their schtick. Poetry is there to be quickly eaten and digested over a long time. Poetry has staying power. It gets in your head and is sticks. You want your story to do the same. A good plot will do that, but so will good prose.
Poetry works because it plays with the odd, abstract ways that people naturally think. We unconciously compare new things to other things and strange things to common things all the time. We think in vague images and metaphors naturally. Poetry expresses thoughts in the weird and natural way that people think. The well trained poet is a master of a variety of literary techniques from the obvious to the subtle.
Prose isn't poetry, of course. If all you want to do is be poetic, go write some poetry. That's cool. But in the world of prose fiction, in short stories and novels, poetry is like spice. What kind of spice? Cinnamon. It is awesome, but it is also potent and a lot is actually dangerous if you try and shove it in your mouth at once. Seriously, don't do that. What you want from poetry is that little bit of flavour that stands out. Not every sentence has to have a metaphor or a carefully constructed rhythm, but when your reader bites down on your prose and finds that little bit of spice, then they will thank you for it. Good prose needs a little bit of poetry from time to time.
So go read some poetry. I suggest The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. That shit is the bomb.