Ashley R Lister

Plot – a four-letter word PART ONE

by Ashley Lister

When writers discuss writing, most are happy to talk about character and point of view. Narrative tension and description are always good for an interesting debate. And the pros and cons of authenticity in dialogue always makes for stimulating conversation. But the subject of plot seems to have a polarising effect on writers.  Plot, it’s fair to say, can be considered a four-letter word.

I’m aware that some writers define themselves as plotters, and others as pantsers, but I think the truth for all of us is that we live somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.  Some stories demand to be written without a moment’s consideration for structure. Other stories, regardless of how strongly a writer identifies as a pantser, need to be constructed with some acknowledgement of structure.

I’ll admit to having written stories after considering structure, but I’ve also written stories without giving structure a second thought. More importantly, I’ve gone back to stories that didn’t seem to work on the first draft, and I’ve been able to save them from the recycle bin with the application of some plotting principles. This month I want to talk about Aristotle.

Aristotle said every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m paraphrasing but this is how most people interpret his wisdom. And this really is wisdom. The beginning is where all the stuff goes that needs to be in the beginning. This is where we meet all the important characters. This is where we discover what’s at stake in the story, where the story is set, and who we are going to follow. If it’s important to your story, it needs to be introduced in the beginning.

The end is where everything is tied up. Or not. However you want to conclude your story, however you have to conclude your story, this is where the happy ever after begins, or the monster is defeated, or the villain begins to atone for his sins. These things can’t go in the middle or at the beginning. They have to go at the end.

Which means the middle is where all the fun stuff should go. If you’re writing an erotic story, this is where your characters get to bang like New Year fireworks. If you’re writing a horror story, this is where the blood, guts, gore and scares all make their appearance. This is the part that takes your reader on the exciting journey from the beginning to the end.

All of which looks fairly straightforward. I can imagine you’re sitting in front of your computer now thinking, “Thanks for telling me stories have a beginning, middle and end, Ashley. I hadn’t already worked that out.”

But this is a truth that we often overlook and, when we’re tidying up stories, it’s worth considering the structure to see if we’ve adhered to this simple principle.  Are you bringing in characters later in the story who are vital to the plot? Is this fair on your reader? Is this upsetting the balance of the story? Does your conclusion happen too early?

As I said earlier, I’m not trying to get people to be plotters if they want to write as pantsers. I’m just trying to make sure everyone knows about the way a little consideration of plot can sometimes help us all to improve the stories we produce.


Writing Exercise – Hávamál

by Ashley Lister

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since I mentioned the Hávamál on this blog.  The Hávamál is a Viking poem, but it is often called a book of wisdom. Written somewhere around AD 700-900, the Hávamál is one of the more well-known Eddaic poems and, amongst other things, it contains nuggets of universal wisdom that still apply today, more than a millennia after these words were first written.

Here is an example from the Hávamál:

A man needs warmth,
the warmth of fire
and of the shining sun.
A healthy man
is a happy man
who’s neither ill nor injured.

A typical Hávamál stanza usually contains six lines or two units of three lines each. The first two lines in each unit are tied together by alliteration, and the third is also decorated with alliteration. For those who’ve forgotten: alliteration is the repetition of similar sounds, usually the sounds of initial consonants, as illustrated below:

Better a humble
house than none.
A man is master at home.
A pair of goats
and a patched roof
are better than begging.

It’s also possible to look at the stresses used in the Hávamál but, for the purposes of this exercise, I’d prefer to see writers focusing on words of wisdom and the use of alliteration.

And that’s this month’s exercise from me: produce a six line poem in the style of the Hávamál, sharing words of erotic wisdom in the comments box below. Remember to keep a tie of alliteration between lines one and two (and four and five), and to ensure that there is some alliteration across lines three and six. This is my attempt:

Naked flesh
flavoured with sweat
can easily excite.
And it aint just
an appetite for
savoury tastes that it satisfies

Have fun with this and I look forward to reading your words of wisdom.

Writing Exercise – The List Poem

 By Ashley Lister

One of my favourite poetic standbys is the
list poem. Because, in real life, I’m a serial list-writer, I find it easy to
slip into the mindset of writing lists. Maybe it’s something to do with having the name ‘Lister’?

This is from a poem I wrote a few years
back entitled ‘A List of Things I Think About During WOFT Meetings’. It will be
noted that the word WOFT is an acronym for Waste Of F*****g Time.

I muted my mobile?

my mouth fixed in a smile?

I slyly check my watch?

I scratch my itchy crotch?

I count the ceiling tiles?

all this sitting give me piles?

I’ve written mine rhyming couplets,
although that’s just personal preference. These can work in blank verse or with
a rhyming structure behind them. What sort of lists would be appropriate for an
erotic poem? How about a list of things I think about whilst blindfolded? What
about a list of things I think about when you’re away? Or  list of things I should have said? This is
how ‘A List of Things I Think About During WOFT Meetings’ continues:

The chair’s
a witless pseud pretender

brings a typo-plagued agenda

followed by his office flunkies

troop of trite arse-kissing monkeys

covens then collude

fat ones focus on free food

everyone gets their free drink

here to eat and chat – not think

I stare at my blank notepad

tell myself it’s not that bad

letting my self-esteem diminish

wond’ring: “When will this crap finish?”

I know that woman’s name?

I check my watch again?

long ago did this shit start?

long can I hold in this fart?

As always, I look forward to seeing your
poems in the comments box below.

Writing Exercise – The Terza Rima

 By Ashley Lister

When I make love, don’t think me crass

I’m sharing this in secret now

I like a finger up my ass

I know it does not sound highbrow

I know it sounds like I’m depraved

But ass-fingers make me say wow

And likely I am pleasure’s slave

The Terza Rima is originally an Italian form that’s been
used by Milton, Shelley, Byron, Frost and Dante Alighieri. It’s written in
tercets (three lined stanzas) with a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc (and so on)
until the final stanza. The final stanza can either be a single line, relating
back to the middle rhyme of the penultimate stanza, (yzy z) or it can be a
concluding couplet (xyx zz).

The structure suits iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter and the interlocking
rhyme scheme presents a neat little form that is a challenge to write and a
pleasure to read.

And likely I am pleasure’s slave

And critics claim I have no class

But when I try to misbehave

I like a finger up my ass

As always, I look forward to seeing your poems in the
comments box below.


Writing Exercise – Humorous Verse

By Ashley Lister

Betty & I

went to one of those swingers’ parties,

and my blow-up doll: Betty.

wanted to add a new kink to our lives.

just went there to get sweaty.

relationship was at a low point.

it had been that way for a bit.

I still tried to treat her with flowers or clothes.

a bicycle puncture repair kit.

I like humour in poetry. Yes, poetry can lend itself to a great level of seriousness, but there is something about rhythm and a cleverness with words that makes me want to do something that will make an audience laugh.

for months my Betty had been silent.

our love life had skidded off track.

didn’t know if Betty had stopped loving me.

was just missing the string from her back.

pumped her up full before leaving.

looked as good as it claimed on her box.

adorned her in lingerie, perfumes and makeup.

then I put on some clean socks.

Humour is relatively simple to do, and impossibly difficult to explain. Go for the unexpected. Use the surreal. Surprise your reader. Do something clever with words. Or simply describe the real world and allow your reader to see the humour that is there waiting to be discovered. 

looked perfectly suited together

each were the cream of the crop

that didn’t stop people from laughing

we waited beside the bus stop.

should really have waited to inflate her

can say horrid stuff

we were both going off to a sex party

I didn’t want to arrive out of puff.

This isn’t the complete poem. This is just the first half of it and I’m sure there are versions floating around the internet. I’ve put this one up here this month just to illustrate the point that even the silliest situation can be used to make an amusing verse.

And the exercise for this month is simple: write a
couple of verses of humorous poetry. As always, I look forward to
seeing your poems in the comments box below.

Writing Exercise – the Burns Stanza

by Ashley Lister

Happy New Year. I’m hoping 2016 brings you
everything you desire that makes your life satisfying.

We first looked at the Burns Stanza back in
October 2014. I’m looking at it again now because we’re in January and Burns
night (25th January) will be on us before we know it. And, what
better way to prepare for a Burns night celebration than to write a saucy Burns

As I mentioned when we looked at this form
before, the form did exist before Burns made it his own. It had previously been
known as the Standart Habbie or the Scottish stanza or, sometimes,
simply the six-line stave. Personally, I’m happy calling it a Burns
stanza. This is my attempt at the form.

Stanzas have six lines rhyming aaabab.
The a lines have four metrical feet and the b lines have two metrical feet.

fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Basque of leather, stockings of lace
A cold smile with no soft embrace
You hold the crop
You wield the whip. I know my place
Please never stop.

As always, I’d love to see your
interpretations of this form in the comments box below. And, if you are celebrating
Burns night this year, please eat haggis responsibly.

Writing Exercise – the refrain

By Ashley Lister

is the ballad of poor, simple Dave

pervert whose quirks sent him straight to the grave

built a sex robot to use as a slave

he came to a sad, sticky end.

According to the Poetry Archive, “A refrain is a repeated part of a
poem, particularly when it comes either at the end of a stanza or between two

Dave fixed white goods, by way of a trade

night, on his X-Box, there were games that he played

none of this helped the poor sod to get laid.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

Refrains are popular in forms such as the villanelle and the triolet
and we can even see it being used in John McCrae’s beautiful war memorial rondeau:
‘In Flanders Fields’. Personally I think the refrain is one of the most
underrated devices in all of poetry. The repetition of a full line (or even
half a line) allows the poet to draw attention to a specific sentiment. As
writers, we can’t get away with that level of foregrounding. But, as poets, no
one bats an eyelid when we repeat and repeat and repeat.

just isn’t fair,” he’d sigh and he’d weep.

living alone like some sick sort of creep.”

he’d pull off a swift one and go back to sleep.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

As you can see, I’ve used a refrain on the final line of each verse in
my ‘Ballad of Poor Simple Dave’. This is a story told in poetic form that
follows the sad adventures of a young man who builds a sex robot. When I’ve
read this one at public performances I’ve heard audiences spontaneously join in
with that refrain and take ownership of the work. It’s humbling to be a part of
such an experience.

he made a sex robot. It wasn’t that hard.

got spares from old cookers lying round his backyard.

she was assembled he lubed her with lard.

he came to a sad, sticky end.

I won’t publish the rest of the poem here – it might not be to every
reader’s liking. But I will ask, if you feel inclined: why not post a couple of
stanzas of your own poetry that are bound by a single refrain? As always, the
comments box is below and it’s always a pleasure to read your work.

Writing Exercise – The Gwawdodyn

by Ashley Lister

The gwawdodyn (pronounced GWOW-DOD-IN) is a Welsh form of poetry that is
presented in a variety of different guises. Differences are argued on the presentation
of the rhyme scheme of the third and fourth lines. However, my favourite
interpretation of this form is illustrated by the poem below.

There’s no greater pleasure than
I say this whilst we’re reminiscing.
Your lips against mine: our tongues intertwined
Let’s try it: find out what you’re missing.

This version of the gwawdodyn follows this structure:

x x x x x x x x a
x x x x x x x x a
x x x x b x x x x b
x x x x x x x x a

Each x represents a syllable. Lines 1, 2 and 4 each have nine syllables,
and an ‘a’ rhyme. Line 3 has ten syllables and an internal ‘b’ rhyme.

Keep in mind there are other versions of this (and perhaps the reason I
like this one so much is because it reminds me of the limerick). As always, I
look forward to seeing your poetry in the comments box below.

Writing Exercise – Strambatto

 By Ashley Lister

You know I like to see you wearing stockings 

And it’s true I’d love to see you in a thong 

The sexy lingerie look’s one you’re rocking 

It makes my need for you grow: both long and strong 

Whilst some of my kinky thoughts are quite shocking 

When I share them here in this poetic song 

If you are supportive and never mocking 

I’m sure that you and I shall get along 

Similar in construction to the Ottava Rima, the Strambatto is also eight hendecasyllabic (11 syllables) lines. However, the rhyme scheme for the Strambatto presented here, the Sicilian form, is a simple alternating structure: a, b, a, b, a, b, a, b.

I think 11 syllable lines can be quite a challenge so, this month, I particularly look forward to seeing your poems in the comments box below.


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