William Shakespeare wrote ‘em. So did Francesco Petrarch, Edmund Spenser, William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, Edgar Allen Poe, and countless other poets. Now you want to write a sonnet (or have to — hello, English 101 students!)

Lucky for us, sonnets aren’t just a joy to read, they’re also easy to write. You just have to learn a few simple facts about what makes a poem a sonnet.

What is a sonnet?

The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian word “sonetto,” or “little song.” Invented in Italy way back in the 13th century, sonnets are short poems written with a specific, regular rhythm.

That rhythm is known as iambic pentameter. Each line of a poem written with this kind of rhythm (that’s the “meter” part) has five (that’s the “penta” part) iambs. And what’s an iamb, you ask? An iamb is a group of two syllables that has the following pattern:

unstressed-STRESSED

In other words, each line of a poem written in iambic pentameter is 10 syllables long and sounds like this famous line from Romeo and Juliet when read out loud:

“But, SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
It IS the EAST, and JULiet IS the SUN.”

Sonnets are brief: just 14 lines long (that’s a grand total of 140 syllables, for those keeping count). The 14 lines are divided into groups called stanzas, which means “rooms” or “stations” in Italian.

And with stanzas, we come to the two main types of sonnets …

Shakespearean vs. Petrarchan sonnets

Not long after they were invented by poet Giacomo da Lentini, fellow Italian Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch, began writing sonnets of his own. Then, in the 16th century, the sonnet was brought to England, where it was embraced by dramatist William Shakespeare. Shakespeare eventually wrote more than 150 of these newfangled poems, but in a slightly altered style.

The two styles became known as Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets. Also called “English” and “Italian” sonnets, there are two main differences between them:

1. The way the 14 lines are arranged into stanzas
2. How the lines rhyme

Shakespearean sonnets have four stanzas (groups of lines). A Shakespearean sonnet starts with three stanzas that have four lines (called “quatrains”) and ends with a stanza that’s got just two lines (called a “rhyming couplet”).

The lines in the four stanzas rhyme in the following way:

• Stanza 1: abab
• Stanza 2: cdcd
• Stanza 3: efef
• Stanza 4: gg

Shakespearean sonnet formula template

Petrarchan sonnets cram all 14 lines into just two stanzas: an opening stanza that’s got eight lines (called an “octave”) and a closing stanza that’s got six lines (called a “sestet”).

The Petrarchan rhyming pattern is quite different from the Shakespearean pattern:

• Stanza 1: abbaabba
• Stanza 2: cdcdcd or cdecde

Petrarchian sonnet formula template

Last but not least, sonnets are traditionally structured like a two-part mini-argument. Though the subject of a sonnet can be anything — from the pangs of unrequited love to the glories of good hamburgers — the overarching theme of a sonnet points to a specific question or problem the poet sets out to solve in rhyme.

First, the poet states the situation to be considered or question to be answered. Then, at a set point in the sonnet, they introduce the “volta.” Somewhat akin to the “cutting word” found in haiku, the volta is the turning point in the argument of the poem (the word means “turn” in Italian). It’s the “However …” or “On the other hand …” moment in which the poet offers a counterargument to the question or a resolution to the problem. This turning point usually produces a change in the tone or mood of the poem.

How to write a sonnet

Since sonnets are basically little rhyming essays that have a beginning, middle and end, let’s learn how to write them that way, from start to finish. We’ll do it for both Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets.

Ready?

1. The Beginning

How to begin a sonnet: select a subject and pick your problem.

As I did in the “How to write haiku” post, I’ll use a random photo I posted to one of my social media accounts as the subject of the poem. How about this photo of a duck egg from my Instagram?

Instagram_katherineluck

As you can see, the current caption is pretty uninspired. So let’s come up with an argument or problem about the duck egg to address in the two sonnets (remember, we’ll be writing a Shakespearean version and a Petrarchan version).

Let’s try “It’s too bad this duck egg will never hatch” as the issue up for debate.

To start the Shakespearean sonnet, we’ll write the first four-line stanza (quatrain) using the abab rhyme pattern. In this initial quatrain, we’ll state both the subject and theme of the poem.

Not too long ago, at the grocery store
Some eggs spied I (sold a dozen a batch)
How strange that I’d never seen one before:
A duck egg! Oh, how I wished it could hatch!

To start the Petrarchan sonnet, we’ll write the first half of the eight-line stanza (octave) using the abba rhyme pattern. Just like we did with the Shakespearean sonnet, we’ll present the subject and theme of the poem.

If there’s a goose that lays eggs of pure gold
(And geese are jerks, you know) why not a duck?
Pots of gold make me wonder what the luck
Of the Irish has to do with an old

2. The Middle

How to write the middle of a sonnet: get specific.

We’ll now write the second stanza of the Shakespearean sonnet (another quatrain), but this time we’ll use the cdcd rhyme pattern. In this stanza, we’ll elaborate on the theme and provide some specific evidence or images to support our argument.

To find a yellow chick hidden inside
That pecks and slowly cracks open the shell
And pokes its head out, no longer to hide.
I like this strange egg—it’s very special,

And now, it’s time for the big twist — the volta. That’s the turning point in the poem, where we present our “However …” counterpoint to the argument. We’ll place it in the traditional location for English sonnets: near the end of the third quatrain. This one’s got an efef rhyme pattern.

A treasure compared with eggs from a hen!
It sure would be nice to have a pet duck—
It could live in the kitchen! Then again…
What if the newly-hatched bird ran amok?

Now for the Petrarchan sonnet. Let’s finish the second half of the octave, adding the final four lines to the stanza, continuing with the abba rhyme pattern.

Egg and what rich treasures it just might hold.
If only this egg could hatch—Megabuck
Lottery winners, step aside! Hatch, duck!
Hatch, and make me rich, before I’m too old!

We’re not done! We’re also going to write the first half of the six-line stanza (sestet) using the cdc rhyme pattern. In the opening line of this stanza, the ninth line of the poem, we’ll introduce the volta. Line 9 is the traditional place for the volta in an Italian sonnet.

But if it did, there’d be a duck attack—
Flapping wings! It would fly around the room!
And the cat would meow and it would quack

3. The End

How to end a sonnet: resolve the argument or solve the problem.

We’re in the home stretch! The final stanza of the Shakespearean sonnet is just two lines long, a rhyming couplet. All we’ve got to do is leave our readers with a concluding statement or image, using the gg rhyme pattern.

Instead, I’ll cook this nice egg for breakfast;
And now this poem is finished at last!

And finally, we’ll wrap up the Petrarchan sonnet with the final three lines of the sestet, again using the cdc rhyme pattern. The volta has been introduced, so it’s time to present the conclusion of the argument.

And I would have to chase it with a broom.
And so, I think, magic gold I must lack.
Instead, I’ll buy a leprechaun costume.

Done! Let’s compare the two finished poems:

Shakespearean Sonnet

Not too long ago, at the grocery store
Some eggs spied I (sold a dozen a batch)
How strange that I’d never seen one before:
A duck egg! Oh, how I wished it could hatch!

To find a yellow chick hidden inside
That pecks and slowly cracks open the shell
And pokes its head out, no longer to hide.
I like this strange egg—it’s very special,

A treasure compared with eggs from a hen!
It sure would be nice to have a pet duck—
It could live in the kitchen! Then again…
What if the newly-hatched bird ran amok?

Instead, I’ll cook this nice egg for breakfast;
And now this poem is finished at last!

Petrarchan Sonnet

If there’s a goose that lays eggs of pure gold
(And geese are jerks, you know) why not a duck?
Pots of gold make me wonder what the luck
Of the Irish has to do with an old
Egg and what rich treasures it just might hold.
If only this egg could hatch—Megabuck
Lottery winners, step aside! Hatch, duck!
Hatch, and make me rich, before I’m too old!

But if it did, there’d be a duck attack—
Flapping wings! It would fly around the room!
And the cat would meow and it would quack
And I would have to chase it with a broom.
And so, I think, magic gold I must lack.
Instead, I’ll buy a leprechaun costume.

Your turn! Show me one of your sonnets on Instagram, or give me a heads-up on Twitter. I can’t wait to see what you write!

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books