How To Write A Sonnet

Sonnet writing is easy when you understand what a sonnet is.

There are various types of sonnets, but I’m not going to talk about them and all their variations.

Instead, lets focus on the five things that most sonnets have in common:

1. They are written in iambic pentameter.
2. They are fourteen lines long.
3. They have a set rhyme scheme.
4. They have a turn or “volta.”
5. They all bear the name “sonnet.”

As an example, we will consider the sonnet “Death of a Sonnet writer” by Scott Ennis

He turned the fourteenth glass and said, “Begin.”
and I had fourteen minutes left to live;
and I had fourteen unrepented sins,
and fourteen people whom I would forgive,

and fourteen unread books upon my shelf,
and fourteen loves I knew I’d loved in vain,
and fourteen dreams I’d kept within myself
(the fourteen I’d most wanted to explain.)

But fourteen minutes quickly passed away.
I filled my pen with fourteen drops of ink-
the fourteenth glass had offered one delay;
and fourteen final grains retained the brink.

This sonnet flowed like fourteen final breaths-
the fourteenth line, the fourteenth grain, then death.

1. Iambic Pentameter

In order to write a sonnet you have to be able to write iambic pentameter. “Iambic pentameter” is the name given to a certain type of rhythm.
An “iamb” is two syllables. The first syllable is un-stressed, and the second syllable is stressed or emphasized. When the two syllables are spoken out loud, they sound like a fall and rise.
Many single words are iambic. Say the following words out loud and listen to how you naturally emphasize or stress the first syllable of the word and then how you naturally let the second syllable fall.

within
forgive
myself
explain
begin

To make the idea of the iamb more visual, let’s use CAPITAL letters for stressed syllables and lower case letters for unstressed syllables.

The list above would look as follows:

withIN
forGIVE
mySELF
exPLAIN
beGIN

Our example sonnet would look like this:

he TURNED the FOURteenth GLASS and SAID, “beGIN.”
and I had FOURteen MINutes LEFT to LIVE;
and I had FOURteen UNrePENted SINS,
and FOURteen PEOple WHOM i WOULD forGIVE,

and FOURteen UNread BOOKS uPON my SHELF,
and FOURteen LOVES i KNEW i’d LOVED in VAIN,
and FOURteen DREAMS i’d KEPT withIN mySELF
(the FOURteen I’D most WANted TO exPLAIN.)

but FOURteen MINutes QUICKly PASSED aWAY.
i FILLED my PEN with FOURteen DROPS of INK-
the FOURteenth glass had offered one delay;
and fourteen final grains retained the brink.

this SONnet FLOWED like FOURteen FInal BREATHS-
the FOURteenth LINE, the FOURteenth GRAIN, then DEATH.

Iambs can be one word, like those listed above or two words, like the opening phrase: HE turned

or part of one word plus part of another word, as in the first line: TEENTH glass

but an iamb is always two syllables with the second syllable LOUDER than the first.

Notice also how some single-syllable words can be either a stressed syllable or un-stressed. In lines 2 and 3 the word “I” is stressed, but in lines 4 and 6 it is unstressed.

The opposite of an iambic word is called a trochaic word. A trochee is just a backward iamb, the stressed syllable comes first, followed by an unstressed syllable.

Iambic words are far less common in English than are trochaic words (examples of some trochaic words include SONnet and Iamb).

2. Fourteen Lines

Why fourteen lines? Why not? The fourteen lines allows for some creative breaks in traditional sonnets. Our example is a Shakespearean sonnet. It has three quatrains, (a quatrain is group of four lines) followed by a couplet (a couplet is a group of two lines). The turn, or “volta” in a Shakespearean sonnet typically comes at the beginning of the third quatrain. This gives the sense that the sonnet has built to a sort of point before being brought home to its ending, which is then punctuated by the final rhyming couplet. It reminds me of a wave building up, rolling in, and crashing onto the shore.

3. Set Rhyme Scheme

A rhyme requires a set of lines with matching sounds at the end. The most number of rhyming pairs a sonnet can have then is 7, since there are only 14 lines and fourteen divided by two is seven.

When we talk about rhyme schemes for a sonnet, we typically use letters to indicate the matching rhymes.

In our example, lines 1 and 3 rhyme as do lines 2 and 4. We therefore say the first four lines have a rhyme scheme of abab. Or if it helps to see it vertically (with the rhyme sound in parentheses):

a (in)
b (ive)
a (in)
b (ive)

(You may have noticed that line 3 is not quite a perfect rhyme with line 1. This is called a slant rhyme.)

The next set of four lines (called a quatrain) also rhyme in similar fashion. Lines 5 and 7 rhyme, as do lines 6 and 8. However, since the rhymes are different, we use different letters: cdcd. Or:

c (elf)
d (ain)
c (elf)
d (ain)

See if you can work out the rhyme scheme for the last six lines of our example.

One rhyme scheme for a sonnet could be: aa bb cc dd ee ff gg. Another might be: ab ab cd cd ef ef gg (this is the rhyme scheme for our example sonnet). Yet another might be: abba cddc effe gg.

The simplest set of rhymes for a sonnet would be to only use one rhyme sound: aaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

There is a type of sonnet which doesn’t rhyme, called a blank verse sonnet. “Blank verse” is un-rhymed iambic pentameter. So, a blank verse sonnet is 14 lines of un-rhymed iambic pentameter. I suppose you could say that the scheme for blank verse would be: abcdefghijklmn. There is a lot of blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays.

4. The Turn or “Volta”

The word “volta” is the Italian word for “turn.”

Placing a volta in a sonnet is the most difficult part for many people.

To help visualize a volta or turn in your sonnet, think of this:

When you are walking through a field, you may at some point decide to change direction by turning.

You might turn one small degree from your previous direction, or you might turn all the way around, 180 degrees and head in the opposite direction. You may do the same thing in a sonnet. Where the turn comes in the sonnet also sometimes depends on what type of sonnet you are attempting to write. In a Shakespearean sonnet the turn usually comes at the ninth line.

An easy example of a turning point would be, lines 1-8 ask a question or series of questions and lines 9-14 answer the question or questions.

The turn might be in the theme of the poem, the sound of the poem, the emphasis of the message or image of the poem. Or, like the blank-verse sonnet, you may choose to consciously omit the volta. However, if you decide to omit the volta, you should do it with purpose and not just to avoid the work of putting a turn in your sonnet.

In our example sonnet, the sonnet writer spends the first 8 lines of the sonnet telling us some of the reasons he wants to live, but then he turns from all of that and in the last 6 lines of the sonnet he confesses that his last moments are spent doing none of these things, but rather he spends them in writing a sonnet.

5. Sonnet

The name sonnet comes from the Italian word “sonnet” which literally means “little song.” If someone reads your sonnet and says, “I don’t like it because it’s too sing-songy,” you can tell them, that it’s supposed to be sing-songy.

Everything about the sonnet lends itself to music: the rhymes, the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, the volta.

Perhaps the simplest way to write a sonnet is to read a few sonnets and mimic what you like about them. After a few sonnets written in this fashion, you will find that the iambic pentameter and rhyme structure come easy to you.

Shakespearean Sonnet

Since the Shakespearean sonnet is probably the best known and most written type of sonnet, I’ll say a little bit more about it here.

A Shakespearean sonnet, like most sonnets, is written in iambic pentameter. Each line is 10 syllables long. The rhythm of each line, as discussed above, should be like this:

soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD

All sonnets have fourteen lines. What makes a sonnet a Shakespearean sonnet is that its fourteen lines rhyme like this:

Line 1 rhymes with line 3
Line 2 rhymes with line 4
Line 3 rhymes with line 1
Line 4 rhymes with line 2
Line 5 rhymes with line 7
Line 6 rhymes with line 8
Line 7 rhymes with line 5
Line 8 rhymes with line 6
Line 9 rhymes with line 11
Line 10 rhymes with line 12
Line 11 rhymes with line 9
Line 12 rhymes with line 10
Line 13 rhymes with line 14
Line 14 rhymes with line 13

Last, most sonnets have a volta, or a turning point. In a Shakespearean sonnet the volta usually begins at line 9.

An easy example of a turning point would be, lines 1-8 ask a question or series of questions and lines 9-14 answer the question or questions.

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