What makes a poem a sonnet? Usually, it’s fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, the most common kind of poem, and a rhyme scheme. But that’s not the only way to write a sonnet. In fact, the sonnet has a long history as an extremely flexible poetic form. It’s also one of the most respected forms of poetry, with an extensive canon of poems that you can emulate as you learn to write your own. From Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets to Maya Angelou’s three, here are the rules of the sonnet, and how to write one.
- 1 Understand the basics
- 2 Start with a simple sonnet structure
- 3 Change your approach gracefully in the quatrains
- 4 Know your central strong argument
- 5 Release the sonnet in stages
- 6 Find a scene to relate to your struggle
- 7 Choose a person and write about them for the rhyme
- 8 Rely on wit
- 9 Write your sonnet
- 10 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Understand the basics
Before we jump into the nit and grit of the actual poem, let’s go over some of the basic elements that a sonnet should include.
First, a sonnet should define a “problem” early on. This problem can sometimes be metaphorical, but it must exist within the larger context of the world. The level to which this problem is resolved is called the “climax”. After that, a sonnet should offer a “resolution,” which can cover the rest of the poem.
These three parts can go in any order, regardless of which of the three lines they end on. A sonnet should generally also have two “turns” or “twists,” in the sense that the poem should quickly establish a meaning while also undermining that meaning. These turns are both essential to the narrative experience of the poem.
With that in mind, it’s time to analyze how to write a sonnet. The two elements that a sonnet needs, however, are a “turn” (volta) and a “resolution.” You want to organize your idea into one of these two categories, so that you end up with a line that is either pivoting from something, or resolving from something. A poem can have any number of turns, depending on how many times you want to turn that idea. This is another way you can subvert or play with tropes — only a quatrain is limited to the concept of two turns.
Start with a simple sonnet structure
A Shakespearean or English sonnet uses a rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. A Shakespearean sonnet on the other hand, was created by the Italian poet Petrarch and has a ABBAABBA CDCDCD, with an 8 line stanza and a 6 line stanza.
Shakespearean sonnets traditionally have the volta at the ninth line, when the rhyme shifts, and then a couplet at the end, to finish the poem.
Change your approach gracefully in the quatrains
For the first two quatrains (octave), it’s important that your format be consistent. You start out with an ABAB rhyme scheme, and if you’re writing in iambic pentameter, that means that each half line should have ten syllables and the first line of the next pair should have eight syllables. Then, in the third quatrain, or sestet, called the sestet, you start to vary the rhyme scheme. This is when the poem does well—according to traditional rules, anyway—to get more advanced and interesting. You can break your form. However, what you can’t do is repeat it the way you did in the octave. You can’t have ABAB again. BCDD, for example, is a typical variation.
Know your central strong argument
One of the most tricky parts of writing one is coloring in that complex canvas often with just one overwhelming idea. As a beginner, it’s almost impossible to write a sonnet addressing every subject you might want to. You need to pick a single message — and make that your central argument. What do you want to accomplish in the fourteen lines you’re given?
When you’ve identified it, you will always have something real, small, and manageable in mind as you craft your most important lines — the ones comprising your argument. The argument of a sonnet is just an idea, or even a single phrase, and it’s at the heart of every meaningful sonnet.
Once the argument is defined, it helps to put your message on the back burner. Instead, consider what form you’re going to take, and how you’re going to arrange your ideas into the sonnet. This will give you a good outline of what you’re going to need to say, with each idea making its own small, permanent statement. If you’re going to write more than one argument in a sonnet, consider making each statement independent — ideally one of the thematic turns you’re taking will more or less stand alone.
Release the sonnet in stages
Delivering out an idea in stages sounds a lot easier than it is, but the biggest mistake a poet can make is to leave five blank pages under the title “Untitled”. Get that idea down on paper. If you’re having trouble, and feel like the sonnet is lagging, for example, finish up one debate in the sonnet — you may notice in retrospect that you’ve successfully led your readers to one point of view or another, and only need to release the reason why.
On the other hand, a lot of poets find that writing this whole sonnet out before revising it can stifle their creativity. You may want your sonnet on paper in order to refer to it for a line or two, but initially you can jot it down on your phone, or email it to yourself. Then you can revise it as needed, before putting it back to bed.
Find a scene to relate to your struggle
The best ideas for sonnets come when an author is trying to relate an experience to their subject matter. The great English poet Richard Lovelace wrote hundreds of poems about his lover, making particular use of the sonnet form. Many of his sonnets are written about the frustration of his rejected love. John Donne wrote a series of love sonnets about his failed marriage. Even Shakespeare dedicated many of his sonnets to his fair young man, likely the inspiration for his male characters including the titular Romeo and the darkly characterized Prince Hamlet.
First, find a scene that has struck you deeply, and then use it as a springboard to share your own experience with the world. Sonnets also work well when they are animated by a sober question—rather than simply celebrating or condemning the world, the speaker tries to understand and address the question.
Keep your sonnet in the present tense, describing present feelings and emotions of the speaker, rather than ruminating on completed actions and experiences. Remember, the present tense best expresses the immediacy of feelings and emotions in all their poetic glory.
Choose a person and write about them for the rhyme
A significant aspect of the sonnet form is the site of the rhymes. Over five instances, every line of the 14-line poem should rhyme with lines in a different place in. In order for this to work correctly, each couplet needs a common rhyme, like “sound” or a less common rhyme, like “boast.” What this does is give each couplet partner lines that rhyme, and individual rhyme words that connect the couplets. You don’t have to keep the rhyme pattern the same, but make sure it fits artfully.
The sonnet form was designed for formal rhyming, so some people may balk at the idea of rhyming informal couplets. While you can do this, it is difficult to make them flow since you are withholding rhyming words and lines for so long. It’s easier to pull off a rhyme if it’s non-traditional but if you go with free verse, perform a near rhyme instead. Near rhymes aren’t exact, but you’re close enough that readers will understand the rhythm. This is a good technique to subvert expectations when you don’t want to rhyme a particular couplet.
Rely on wit
Understand that the purpose of the sonnet is not to present a complex idea, but rather to poke fun at an idea that others have discussed heavily. The language of the sonnet is elegant, so make sure to choose language that is also equally elegant but lean. Do not become too verbose. A line containing fourteen lines of prose or a page with fourteen lines of margin notes is not allowed. Incorporate wit into the presentation of the thoughts you want to get across. It is this flash of wit that is the best way to get the most engagement with readers.
Take an ongoing idea in the world or the nation and make use of this powerful tool to use to weave a sonnet by taking an already existing pattern. It will serve as a framework for your sonnet and lessen the burden of how to write one. Good argumentative structure and effective grabbers are what makes a sonnet better.
Write your sonnet
Don’t let the rules inhibit you. To be confident in your writing ability, you need to know them. If you’re serious about writing sonnets, it might help to have a rhyming dictionary by your side, along with a thesaurus. You don’t have to limit yourself to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, or even employ the same rhyme pattern from stanza to stanza. That said, the advice given above will help you structure your work and better connect it to the existing canon of sonnets for future readers. As long as you’re having fun writing sonnets, that’s the real test of your success.
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