7 Steps to successfully write a villanelle
so you can join Villanelle Vestiges
Yes, I’m well aware that’s a clickbait title — forgive me! Let me make it up to you by showing you a few tips for how to write a villanelle.
First things first: it’s a challenging form. I’ve even written about how challenging it is!
So if you nail it first go, well done. You’re one of the lucky people who just gets it. Other people just get how to write a haiku, or how to paint with oils, or how to play a musical instrument. But if you struggle, remember your reward will be that much greater when you push through and read your completed villanelle.
Over time, you’ll come to know the form, and how it works for you. This guide should help you get started, pointing out a few things to think about as you have a go at your first villanelle — hopefully the first of many.
1. Recognise the form
Here’s what a villanelle looks like:
A1-b-A2 / a-b-A1 / a-b-A2 / a-b-A1 / a-b-A2 / a-b-A1-A2
- A1 is a refrain line that is repeated throughout, sometimes with small variations
- A2 is another refrain line, which end-rhymes with A1
- a denotes lines that end-rhyme with A1 and A2
- b denotes a line using a (usually) different end-rhyme.
You can use it as a template for your own villanelle, by signing up for Google Docs, or downloading the file in your preferred format. I’ll talk about how to use the different parts of the document as we work through it. Keep in mind there are many allowable variations to the form, but it’s generally a good idea to learn the basic form before you start playing with it.
2. Get to know the form
Next, you should get to know the form beyond the surface appearance. Look deeper. Read every villanelle you can find, and think about which elements work for you, and which techniques or approaches you’d rather avoid. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Do you prefer villanelles that get nowhere, circling back to the same spot? Or do you like villanelles that reinterpret the refrains each time they’re used?
- Do you like poems that stick vigorously to the refrains, with no alterations? Or do you like a little variation, changing a word here or there?
- Do you like neatly contained stanzas, or do you like to use enjambment to stretch the meaning of your refrains across lines and stanzas?
- Do you like villanelles with consistent or varying line length?
- Do you like punctuation within the villanelles? How do you feel about capital letters at the start of lines?
- In the non-refrain lines, do you like re-used words or do you prefer that every rhyme is a different word? What if it’s not the whole word, but just part of a word, like “done” and “undone”?
- How close does the rhyme need to be to suit your ear? Are you drawn to perfect rhyme? Does near rhyme sound better in certain applications, like a solemn poem? Will you only consider it a rhyme if the last strong syllable rhymes (e.g. nation and inflation), or do you think soft rhyme works just as well (e.g. nation and ocean)?
- Do like narrative villanelles (which tell a story) or lyrical villanelles? (Pro-tip: the latter are probably easier, but the former are very much worth the effort.)
There are no right or wrong answers; it’s just about your personal preferences.
3. Choose your refrains
This is the make-or-break point for most villanelles. You will need to choose refrains that work for you — some idea or image that haunts you, creating a cloud of words in your head that are just waiting to rain down on your page.
The refrains create some structural constraints in your villanelle, so here are a few key things to remember:
- The two lines need to fit neatly together in the last stanza, where the form is a-b-A1-A2 (or occasionally a variation of this, like a-b-A2-A1).
- In the first stanza, you only get one line between the two refrains, so you need to be able to either link the two ideas with only one line between them, or have them stand alone as separate ideas with the middle line linked to one of the other two.
- If you want to use enjambment, the refrains should work at the start, end, or middle of a sentence, to give you plenty of options for building around them.
Once you’ve picked your candidate refrains, put them in the template to get a clear picture of how the poem might play out.
(Of course, if you’re working through this guide so you can participate in Villanelle Vestiges, choosing your refrains should be simple — they’ve already been written by someone else!)
4. Play with some rhymes
When you’re writing a villanelle, you’ll need to write two refrains (each used four times), another five a-lines that rhyme with your refrains, and another six b-lines that rhyme with each other. That’s a lot of rhyming words, and it’s not always easy to find ones that fit with both the rhyme scheme and the theme of your poem.
If you arm yourself with a big list of rhyming words before you start developing your poem, you can pick and choose words as you need and be confident that you won’t run out of rhyming words before you finish your villanelle. Using a rhyming dictionary (or searching for “rhymes with [word]”) is not cheating — it’s smart!
If you can’t find enough rhyming words that suit your theme, even after using the rhyming dictionary, you might have to change your rhyme scheme. Trust me, it’s better than forcing ill-fitting words into your villanelle! But there are a few tricks you can try to keep your villanelle on-track:
- Look for synonyms of your hard-to-rhyme word, or related ideas. Do any of them offer a better rhyme scheme?
- Can you switch clauses or turn your phrases around to create a different end rhyme while still saying the same thing?
- If you’re using perfect rhyme, try some near rhyme. (Just try it. I promise it won’t bite!)
For example, instead of writing “I went to the beach”, you could use
- To the beach I went
- I went to the seaside
- I went to the sea
- I went to the Gold Coast
- I went to the bay
- I went for a swim
- I swam in the bay
or, if you stuck with your original phrase, you could rhyme it with “heat” and “sweet”.
If you’re preparing for Villanelle Vestiges, you’ve probably already chosen your source poem, which includes both your refrain lines and at least a few other lines that rhyme with them. This is a good starting point, but if you want your poem to stand out, you’ll need to choose a different b-rhyme scheme and a different theme.
Before you move on to the next step, consider your word list in the context of your poem. Does your b-rhyme scheme work, and will it fit well in both the first and last stanzas? If your answer is yes and you’ve gotten rid of any words that just don’t fit, it’s time to get started.
5. Put them in order
Templates at the ready! (And if you’ve printed it out, you’ll probably want to use a pencil.) This is where we start shaping these rhymes into the core idea of the poem.
Place your “most likely rhymes” into a loose order that works with your theme, thinking now about how your a- and b-rhymes work together. Record them in the boxes on the right hand side of the template. There’s a good chance you’ll end up going somewhere else, which is perfectly okay — it’s just easier to start out when you’ve got a target.
6. Write your (draft) villanelle!
Everything you’ve done up until now has prepared you for this moment, and yet nothing can really prepare you. But the goal is to get a first draft, so just go with the flow. Get the words on paper. It doesn’t matter if you can’t find the right ones — you can replace them later.
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on those words to the right, though. If you end up using one early, make sure you switch your “most likely rhymes” around so you don’t unintentionally use the same word twice.
You’re almost done!
7. Revise…and revise again
This is the most important step in writing a villanelle, or most poetry forms; I wouldn’t dream of publishing something without revision. Reading your poem aloud will help highlight any contrived words or forced rhythms, which you may want to address before you publish.
But there are some more subtle changes you can make, too:
- If you add more punctuation, will it help the reader? If you remove punctuation, will it better highlight your villanelle’s ambiguity?
- Are you using tense, point of view, voice, and tone consistently throughout?
- Are your rhyme choices creating the desired effect? What happens if you replace perfect rhyme with near rhyme, or vice versa?
- How do you feel about your line length. Would longer or shorter lines work better? Or a mix?
Keep tweaking your poem until you’re genuinely happy.
Now look closely at your work.
You just wrote a villanelle!
After you’ve copied-and-pasted your villanelle to a new Medium story, and submitted your draft to your favourite publication (remembering to add the tag “Villanelle”), please consider letting me know how you went.