How to Slay a Sonnet

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Learn how to write a sonnet that inspires strangers to love you, and that makes your enemies quake in fear

For many writers, poets, and students, the sonnet is the most intimidating poetic form in the English language. I blame Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare not only wrote some of the most enduring plays in western literature, but he also wrote a series of famous sonnets. The most famous sonnets in the history of the world. His work was so good that when anyone says the word sonnet, they are almost always referring to the style of poem Shakespeare wrote. These poems are sometimes called Elizabethan sonnets, after Queen Elizabeth.

However, Shakespeare’s name has supplanted the Queen’s as the label for this type of poem.

Critics love to compare every sonnet to the ones in the Shakespeare canon. Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about love and lust. But you can write a sonnet about anything.

If you don’t want to sound like a greeting card, you should probably stay away from generic confessions of love in your sonnets.

Sonnets are fun to write, and once you learn a few basic rules, you can create works that slay. When you start writing sonnets, write from your heart and imagination. Don’t try and imitate anyone else.

Great poetry makes the poet and the reader feel something. Copying someone else will never generate the same level of feeling that writing in your own voice will.

Basics of a Shakespearean Sonnet

A Shakespearean sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. It has four stanzas. The first three stanzas are all quatrains — meaning they each have four lines. The last stanza is a couplet, two lines that end in a rhyme.

Each quatrain follows a specific rhyme scheme. In a quatrain, every other line rhymes, but they do not rhyme with any other lines in the poem.

You could write the rhyme scheme for a sonnet like this:

A
B
A
B

C
D
C
D

E
F
E
F

G
G

For most poets, the structure and the rhyme scheme are the easy part. Where the wheels start to fall off for many people is that a sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. WTF?

Iambic pentameter is a type of meter or rhythm for a poem. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays were also written with this meter. Iambic pentameter sounds confusing, but it means each line is ten syllables long.

An iambic foot is a group of two syllables. Iambic pentameter is five units of two-syllable groups. 5 x 2 = 10.

Simple, right?

Except, there is one more rule. English teachers will tell you that in each iambic foot, the syllables alternate between unstressed and stressed. However, this is a horrible way to describe the beauty of the iambic pentameter rhythm.

Getting the Rhythm Right

Sonnets are written to be read aloud. The rhythm of the lines is like a drumbeat in the background.

A more natural way to think about unstressed, stressed is to think in terms of patterns like this:

Ba-BOOM

Va-VOOM

Da-DOOM

Here the first syllables are unstressed, while the second syllables sound longer and land with more force.

When you are writing a sonnet, you want words like: a, the, of, and is, to land on the first syllable in the pattern as much as possible. The stressed syllables should be reserved for nouns and verbs. “I love you queen, with effervescent zeal,” is more poetic and has better rhythm than “Queen, my love for you is effervescent.”

Let’s Write a Sonnet

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to try and create a sonnet. Below I have crafted a sonnet about a subject dear to my heart, Sasquatch. I will show you how I wrote each stanza or quatrain.

When writing a poem, I need more than just a theme. I need a story or a goal. This is going to be a sonnet about a misguided cryptozoologist trying to convince Sasquatch not to kill him.

First, I have to set the scene.

1st Quatrain

I have a few choices to make. Who is telling the story? Whose point of view should I adopt for the poem? I could write from the point of view of Sasquatch, from the cryptozoologist, or I could write in omniscient third-person.

I want the poem to be humorous, so I am going to write from the point of view of the cryptozoologist. His predicament seems funnier to me. You could write from a different point of view in each stanza, like a dialogue. But, you have to be careful when switching points of view, otherwise you might confuse your reader. I’m going to keep it simple.

Probing forest for elusive Sasquatch
My expedition ran into a lull
Beast grabbed me while I looked at my smartwatch
Tossed me and raised a rock above my skull

2nd Quatrain

In the first quatrain, I introduced the characters and set up the problem. Now, I need to build tension and explore the characters more.

In stuttering supplication, I cried
She glared and growled one ferocious word — why?
Here with innocent intentions, I lied
Seeking you out to look you in the eye

3rd Quatrain

Now, I need to bring the conflict to a head. This is the final act of the story. We need to show how this conflict will be resolved.

Her face skeptical, she raised her huge arm
I was transfixed by her primal beauty
Spotting her rock returned me to alarm
Did my cryptozoological duty

Couplet

It’s clear where the story is going. With the final couplet, I can provide a twist, or I can write an ending that drives home the theme of the poem.

Wait, I begged. Why kill? You’re an herbivore!
She laughed, wheezed, and then grunted, “Omnivore!”

Complete Sonnet

Here is what the sonnet looks like when we put all the parts together:

Probing forest for elusive Sasquatch
My expedition ran into a lull
Beast grabbed me while I looked at my smartwatch
Tossed me and raised a rock above my skull

In stuttering supplication, I cried
She glared and growled one ferocious word — why?
Here with innocent intentions, I lied
Seeking you out to look you in the eye

Her face skeptical, she raised her huge arm
I was transfixed by her primal beauty
Spotting her rock returned me to alarm
Did my cryptozoological duty

Wait, I begged. Why kill? You’re an herbivore!
She laughed, wheezed, and then grunted, “Omnivore!”

Other Tools

The last step in writing a sonnet that slays is using your other creative writing tools. The more creative you can be with metaphors, similes, and allusions, the more interesting your poem will be. The above sonnet could be improved by using more figurative language.

As you get more practice, you can use some of your creative writing tools as you form the lines of the poem. When you first start writing sonnets, it’s often easier to first write the lines and then go back and add embellishments.

Most poems can be improved by merciless editing and rewriting. However, writing and reading poetry should be fun, not arduous. Perfect is the enemy of done. Spend some quality time rewriting your poem and then release it into the world. You can always write more poetry tomorrow.

What are you waiting for? There is a sonnet inside of you, waiting to be written. Get to work!

Be the poetry you want to see in the world!

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