How to write a ballad

A woman writing a ballad poem

Image: Odishev/

Ballads are a narrative written in a poetic form. While they’re long, they are not hard to write, and can be real fun to write, too. With that in mind, I have summarised some of the key characteristics of a ballad below, so you can have a go at writing some yourself.

A common misconception is that the theme of a ballad must be love. True, there are many ballads that are romantic, but this doesn’t mean they all have to be. In fact, you can write your ballad on any subject you choose.

Key steps to writing a ballad

  • Start out by making notes on the tale you want to tell
  • Once you’ve written the story out, cut it down in length, removing all unnecessary words and sentences
  • Remove anything that isn’t an action or something that drives an action
  • Now its time to reform your sentences. Listen for a beat, and form ballad stanzas using rhythm and rhyme
  • Ensure your opening stanza sets the story and also the mood of the piece
  • Add intrigue by keeping the first couple of stanzas detailed yet open to various avenues down which the story could travel
  • Use the final quatrain to conclude the story, either using the same rhyme scheme or going off-beat

Things to remember when writing a ballad

  • Use lots of imagery in your ballad in a detached manner to help the reader picture the story
  • Whether a ballad is or isn’t going to be put to music, they always have a musical feel to them
  • The rhyme scheme for a ballad is often abcb or abab
  • Ballads tend to be written in stanzas of 4 or 8 lines, but it is OK to deviate from this
  • You may include a repetitive verse (or chorus, if the ballad is to be sung) between your stanzas

Below is an extract from a very long and popular ballad, which was in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and also featured in the original Disney film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland:

Alice in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland. Image: Svetlana Smirnova/

The Walrus and the Carpenter – Lewis Carroll

The sun was shining on the sea,

Shining with all his might:

He did his very best to make

The billows smooth and bright —

And this was odd, because it was

The middle of the night.


The moon was shining sulkily,

Because she thought the sun

Had got no business to be there

After the day was done —

“It’s very rude of him,” she said,

“To come and spoil the fun.”


The sea was wet as wet could be,

The sands were dry as dry.

You could not see a cloud, because

No cloud was in the sky:

No birds were flying overhead —

There were no birds to fly.

Below is an excerpt from the Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall. This ballad is based on the bombing of an Alabama church in 1963, in which four girls died.

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.


She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

Just from these two examples, you can see how varied ballads can be in both structure and topic. Have you written a ballad? Share it with us in the comments!

As a long-term stationery lover, I adore working for The Pen Company. My childhood saw me carrying around a little red suitcase covered in stickers and full of pens, paper and other such goodies; my adulthood sees me doing pretty much exactly the same!

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