How to Write a Ballad

Four Parts:Sample BalladsComing Up with a TopicWriting Your BalladFinalizing Your Ballad

Ever since the concept of love was defined, people have been writing wonderful ballads about someone special in their lives. Characters in ballads have been love-lorn kings, broken hearted sailors roaming the sea, and cowboys riding across a dusty plain at sunset thinking of their lady loves (among many others). Take up the mantle of the ballad writer and create your own by following along, starting at Step 1.

Sample Ballads

Sample Ballad About Nature

Sample Ballad About Person

Sample Ballad About Event

Part 1
Coming Up with a Topic

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    Understand what a ballad is. A ballad is a poem or song that focuses on a specific story. Often, ballads are about love--either lost or found-- or about an event or interaction that says something about the human condition. They are thought of as romantic and are often tragic. Reading ballads by other writers can be very helpful when you are trying to come up with your own ballad.[1]
    • Traditional British ballads can be funny, tragic, or even satirical, often tackling themes like love, work, and death. Like newspapers, they are impersonal in tone – regardless of how sensational the story is.
    • British broadsides (so-called because of the paper they used to be printed on) are more topical (i.e. journalistic), addressing events and issues of the day. These are often told from a first-person perspective, have stereotypical characters, and aren't very objective.
    • North American ballads also deal with love, scandal, violence, and disaster and are often categorized by the groups who sing them, whether they be miners, sailors, or cowboys, Native Americans, etc. Classic North American ballads include “John Henry” and “Casey Jones.”[2]
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    Pick a theme for your ballad. Ballads tell stories that often tackle themes like scandal, love, death, disaster, or even current events. They usually follow a clear, linear storyline, relying on plotted action (an unsettled situation, a climax, and a resolution) to build suspense. Since many tell (or retell) traditional stories that have been circulating for generations, you can also adapt a well-known tale to ballad form if you don’t wish to write one from complete scratch.
    • Often, the theme of the ballad will make us feel a certain way about our own lives. Tragic ballads that focus on lost love are meant to remind us to be grateful of the lives we lead and the love we experience.[3]
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    Pick an event or tale to describe in your ballad. The topic can range from a significant historical event that affected thousands, to a small, personal moment you had in your own life. Once you have chosen a particular event or person(s) to focus on, do a bit of research so that you can pick which parts of the story you want to tell, and which are unnecessary for the advancement of the narrative and theme.
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    Single out the most important elements of the plot. Ballads use a narrative style known as “leaping and lingering” – that is, skipping over non-essential plot points so that more time can be spent on the interesting moments. To mimic this style, cut any unnecessary backstory, plot connections, or secondary details that distract from the plot of the story you've chosen.
    • Stagger Lee, the example ballad for this article, is a classic American blues ballad about the murder of Billy Lions at the hand of Stagger Lee, who overreacted when Billy knocked the hat from his head. Salacious stories like this usually make for very popular ballads.

Part 2
Writing Your Ballad

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    Find a starter phrase. The opening line of a ballad is often the hardest to write, but it is also the most important, because it is what draws the reader or listener in and makes him or her feel like he/she a part of the story. Ballads often open with stock phrases such as the come-ye-all salutation. (Ex. “Come all ye maidens,” “Come all ye comrades,” etc.) Feel free to borrow this phrase to get your story going (and make your ballad more authentic to boot). If you don’t want to use a starter phrase, focus on introducing the reader to the story.[4].
    • Mississippi John Hurt’s version of Stagger Lee jumps right into the action by opening with,Police officer, how can it be?
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    Establish a rhythm and rhyme scheme. Ballads typically have four-line verses, of which two or more rhyme. (Blues ballads, on the other hand, often have two rhyming lines followed by a third, independent line.) The easiest way to get started with the rhythm and rhyme is to complete the first verse however you like it, then use it as the basis for the rest of the lines in the verse (ex. keeping the length, rhythm, and end rhyme of each line more or less consistent).
    • An AA rhyme is when the first and second line rhyme.
    • AABB: The first two lines are a rhyming pair and the second two lines are a new rhyming pair.
    • ABAB: The first and third line rhyme and the second and fourth line rhyme.
    • ABCB: Only the second and fourth lines rhyme.
    • Example from Stagger Lee (the first three lines are AAB, which is the traditional blues ballad rhyme scheme.):

      Police officer, how can it be?
      You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stagger Lee
      That bad man, cruel Stagger Lee.
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    Write the chorus. Once again, the chorus is very flexible in ballad form. It can be one line that is repeated in every verse, two lines that are repeated every few verses, an entire verse, or even two verses back-to-back. Additionally, you can repeat the chorus verbatim or change it slightly each time for dramatic effect.
    • This version of Stagger Lee includes the chorus at the end of every verse (The chorus is That bad man, oh cruel Stagger Lee):

      Police officer, how can it be?
      You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stagger Lee
      That bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee
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    Write a second verse in the same style as the first. Use a consistent meter (i.e. try to keep the same lyrical rhythm as you did in the first verse). The meter is basically the pattern of syllables in a song or poem. Most ballads use the same meter throughout the song, or the meter for the chorus may differ from that of the verses. This is what dictates the rhythm. This following Poem has 3 lines, other than typical 4-lined ballads. By extending the sentences to other lines, you will be able to see it morph into a poem looking ballad.
    • Billy de Lyon told Stagger Lee, "Please don't take my life,
      I got two little babies, and a darlin' lovin' wife."
      That bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee
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    Complete the ballad using your structural template. Once you have the verse style down, you just need to complete your story following the same structural guidelines you. Don't be a slave to that structure, though. If you need to vary the length of a line or even of a verse here and there, go ahead and do it, and if you want to deviate from your rhyme pattern feel free to do so if it will make your ballad better.
    • "What I care about you little babies, your darlin' lovin' wife?
      You done stole my Stetson hat, I'm bound to take your life."
      That bad man, cruel Stagger Lee

      “Boom-boom, boom-boom,” went the forty-four
      When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was layin' down on the floor
      That bad man, oh cruel Stagger Lee

      "Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that?
      Stagger Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat."
      That bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee.

      And all they gathered, hands way up high,
      At twelve o'clock they killed him, they're all glad to see him die
      That bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee
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    Keep in mind that some ballads, like Stagger Lee, can have the chorus built into each verse. In these cases, the rhyme scheme is often AAB (see above) or ABAC (where the two-line chorus occupies the second and fourth lines, B and C, of each verse).
    • Lines that "go together" should have roughly the same number of syllables and accented syllables.
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    Note that it's not necessary to use three- or four-line verses and choruses. While this is the most common ballad form, occasionally you'll find a ballad with, say, 6 lines, or one with a varying number of lines per verse.
    • Note that there are cases where the rhythm or the cadence of the ballad is more important than the rhyme.

Part 3
Finalizing Your Ballad

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    Put the ballad away once you have finished it. Give yourself some time to focus on other things before coming back to edit the ballad. Clearing your head of the story and the rhythm will allow you to look at the ballad with new eyes when you begin editing.
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    Go back to the spots you had trouble with. Perhaps you couldn't find the right rhyme, or there were just too many syllables and you didn't know how to get rid of them. See if you can fix them now. Cut out any unnecessary verses, leaving only what the story needs.
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    Read your ballad out loud. Whether or not you plan to put your ballad to music, you should still read your poem out loud. Reading out loud will help you to locate parts of the poem that might sound awkward. If you trip over a verse, you will know that you will have to tweak the amount of syllables or rhyme also make sure you can sing it because most ballads were sung in the olden times.
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    Have someone else look over it. Don’t tell him or her anything about the story--see if she/he can pick up the plot and themes on his/her own. You want your audience to be able to understand what you’re trying to say. Ballads are not simply songs; they are stories that teach the audience life lessons.
  5. 5
    Put your ballad to music (optional.) Many ballads get made into songs, though they are also lovely when left simply as a poem to be shared with others. If you have a musical ear, try putting your ballad to some music.

Normally there are four lines in each verse but we will make exceptions.

Image titled Write a Ballad Step 16


  • If you sing or hum as you go, sometimes the words will just flow.
  • Don't be afraid to choose creative, unusual, or imperfect rhymes. If you try to force all your rhymes to be technically perfect, your song's lyrics may end up sounding silly.
  • If you know the story you want to tell but are having trouble putting it into a poetic structure, just write the story first without worrying about any technical details. You may find it easier to convert it to ballad form once it’s written plainly.
  • It's okay to write a ballad without music. A ballad is a form of lyrical poetry, which means simply that it can be sung. It doesn't have to be sung.

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Categories: Songs and Song Writing