How To Write a Sonnet For Beginners
What You Need To Know
First, let's review the basics. I am going to be addressing the Shakespearean sonnet because it is the most widely known and recognized. There are other types of sonnets, notably, the Italian, or Petrarchan, and the Spenserian. Below is what is needed to write a Shakespearean, or English sonnet:
- Contains 14 lines
- Rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg
- Written in iambic pentameter
- Presents a conflict or idea
- Has a "turn" after the first half (8 lines).
- Resolves the conflict or idea in the last 6 lines.
You're probably thinking that all of those requirements seem fairly easy, except for #3, "Written in iambic pentameter". And you're right. Iambic pentameter is not the easiest form to write in, however, we need to define it to understand exactly what we're up against.
Iambic is referring to the use of an "iamb", which is a metrical foot of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
Pentameter is a line of verse that contains five metrical feet.
So Iambic Pentameter means a line with five sets of iambs.
Not too difficult once we break it down, right? Let's see an example, I'm going to use The Bard's most famous sonnet, Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Let's Dissect It
Next to each line is a letter that corresponds to its rhyme scheme: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG
In each line I italicized the unstressed (or short) syllable and bolded the stressed (or long) syllable.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? A
(Notice how there are FIVE sets of italicized and bold syllables, that's the pentameter. I'll mark it in the following line.)
Thou art1more love2ly and3more tem4perate5: B
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, A
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: B
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, C
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; D
And every fair from fair sometime declines, C
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; D
But thy eternal summer shall not fade E
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st; F
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, E
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st: F
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, G
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. G
"That looks too hard." "I won't be able to do it." "I understand the concept, I just don't think I can write a sonnet."
These were my thoughts before I tried to write my first sonnet. Maybe you're having similar thoughts. Sonnets are not easy to write, that's why the style has slowly gone out of style, and that's why Shakespeare is still being studied for his use of language. But if you can write a sonnet, you automatically deserve accolades. So don't be discouraged, I'll walk you through your sonnet-writing journey.
I've listed easy steps in chronological order of a great way to approach your sonnet:
1. Decide what you want the sonnet to be about.
2. Write a fourteen line poem about this topic.
- Try to use the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, this will save time in the later editing of your sonnet
3. Now for the revision, if you haven't made the lines follow the rhyme scheme, do so here.
4. Count the amount of syllables in each line, there should be ten.
5. Change the words around to get the unstressed and stressed rhythm of the sonnet
- I suggest reading a couple of sonnets until you get the internal "ba BUM" feeling of an iamb.
6. Here is where the heavy editing and frustration oft comes in, finding those words to express what you want to say and still adhere to the structure. (This step for me took hours, so don't feel discouraged, this style is really hard.
- I suggest looking at other sonnets and possibly using words from them that have the iamb you need.
- If you notice, Shakespeare, the renowned sonneteer, broke up the sound and rhythm of words with apostrophes, you can do so too.
- If you're stuck, look in the thesaurus to find words that have similar meanings but different sounds and rhythms.
7. Once you think you have a finished sonnet, take a break from it (at this point you may be thinking and talking in iambs), then return to it and make sure that it still works.
8. Have someone else read your sonnet and check for any errors.
9. Post it in the comments so others can see your work. Help show others that it is possible!
Below is a sonnet I wrote that was inspired by Sonnet 18 (shown above). It is a work in progress, as are all forms of art, in my opinion; so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!
Comparing to a summer’s day seems daft,
My thoughts swirling throughout encephalon;
Other ideas are alike: portraits.
I will compare you to a chilly storm:
Can’t see, I’m blinded through icy windows,
A frigid nip vibrates throughout my soul
And tickles ‘til from inside I feel snow,
It radiates until I’m numb and cold;
But in my heart do I compare thee to
A symphony: soft melodies refrain
Sweet angels sing and harmonize in tune,
A pregnant stop and I do miss my train;
I change my mind and shall compare thee too,
‘Cause summer fervor emanates from you.
If you found this useful, check out my 'How To Write a Haiku for Beginners'
- How to Write a Haiku for Beginners
A simple layout of how to write a Japanese haiku. Includes brainstorming and a finalized poem.