Sonnet Building Step 1: “Gathering DNA”

The very first thing you must do before you sit down to write a sonnet is find an idea worth writing about. Trying to write a sonnet with no initial concept is pretty much guaranteed to give you a dull, meandering poem. But how do you go about dreaming up subject matter?

There are ideas everywhere. If you’re a prose writer, go peek in the notebook on your beside table – or in that Word document that has random freestanding lines that don’t fit in any of your novels. What about that list of flash fiction or short story ideas you haven’t gotten around to? If you’re a free-verse poet, take a look back at some of your jotted notes that never got executed. Are there poem ideas you’ve always wanted to try but never sat down to write?

Or what if you’re not a writer at all? No worries. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a few good ideas in them somewhere. You just have to know where to look. And sometimes starting with a brand-spanking-fresh idea is the way to go anyway: no preconceptions, no initial discouragement.

So everybody get out a notepad and pen or open a blank Word document. We’re going to brainstorm. In one, long, unorganized column, jot down anything and everything that comes to mind. No censoring. No one will see this list but you.

Starter Ideas:
a childhood memory
your life mantra
a rebuttal to a famous poem, quote, or saying
a funny story
a random thought
a play on words
a time that someone surprised you
a joke you’ve made up
a message to a loved one
a common “wisdom” you disagree with
what you’d say to someone you’ve lost
a memorable dream
a nightmare
your favorite animal or pet
an inanimate object
a color that means something different to you than to most people
a time of year that fills you with unusual feelings
the most romantic thing that anyone’s ever done for you
a changing moment in your beliefs
a *really* unique metaphor
a poignant memory
a truth you want to tell the world
a realization about an idol or mentor who changed in your eyes
a doubt that won’t go away
a sexy memory or fantasy
a time that seemed too good to be true
something that scares you

Now here are two secrets that most people don’t know:

1) The more original your initial idea is, the easier the sonnet will be to write.
2) The more specific your initial idea is, the easier the sonnet will be to write.

So avoid clichés (which might mean not writing a love poem), broad topics like “passion” or “hate,” and general descriptions of nature or beauty. These are all well and good, but easy to become redundant about. So for beginners, especially, I recommend finding a topic you’ve never seen done before. No pressure, right?

But don’t worry. You have until next Monday to choose which one you’re going to start with. Until then, here are some factors to keep in mind while you’re brainstorming and deciding:

Length
A sonnet is fourteen lines long. That’s shorter than you might think. It is not, for example, long enough to tell a story with more than a few characters, nor is it long enough to explain a complicated topic while still having room to make a point about it. So choose a topic with a relatively narrow focus.

That being said, the lines are ten syllables long. That’s longer than you might think. So if your topic can be completely stated in a single sentence… you’re going to need some filler. (Hint: filler makes for slow poems.) So yes, choose a narrow topic, but choose one that leaves room for some elaboration and description. You do, after all, have to fill up fourteen lines with it.

As a gauge of length, think of it as a good, relaxed joke (and not a knock-knock one) told around a campfire. That’s about how long a sonnet idea should feel in your head.

The Personal Factor
Now this is something that prose writers, especially, seem to struggle with. We all assume that novels are (mostly) fiction, but most people assume that poetry is true. And while it is important that your poem “ring true” on a larger level, it is not important that your poem be factual. In fact, (ha!) it will make it easier for you to write if you release the facts and embrace what comes out.

So should you write about that super intimate secret lurking in your heart? Well, sure, if you feel driven to do so. But keep in mind a few things: 1) People will assume it’s true. 2) Forcing your thoughts to rhyme can sometimes skew the truth. If that bothers you, you might want to start with a less personal/emotional topic.

Working Toward the Punch Line
I’ve saved this point for last, not only because it’s my very best advice and the most important thing to keep in mind, but because it’s also applicable to you Prosers. And the big tip is….

Come up with your ending first.

Here’s why. The Shakespearean sonnet, which is the version we will be using since it is the most well-known and (I think) the easiest to work with, can be broken down into four “chunks.”

• The first quatrain. (Four intermixed lines that alternatingly rhyme.)
• The second quatrain. (Four intermixed lines that alternatingly rhyme.)
• The third quatrain. (Four intermixed lines that alternatingly rhyme.)
• The couplet. (Two lines at the end that rhyme directly with each other.)

So put simply, the English sonnet is 12 lines of alternating rhyme followed by 2 lines of back-to-back rhyme. When you look at it like this, it’s easy to see what will pack the most punch in the poem: those last two lines.

The couplet carries the poem. In a funny sonnet, the couplet is the punch line. In a sad sonnet, it’s the emotion that tugs at our heartstrings. In a sexy sonnet, it’s the proclamation that takes our breath away. In a narrative (story-telling) sonnet, it’s the twist we never saw coming.

What does this mean for your idea-gathering? It means that whatever your topic, it should lend itself to a “punch line.” Personally, 90% of the time, the couplet is what I think of first, and then I write toward it. What do you really want to say? What’s your final message? What’s the twist that makes this tale unique? Put that in your couplet. If you can’t figure out (generally speaking here; we aren’t writing yet) how to you might do that… keep brainstorming on other ideas. Chances are good that you’ll know it when you find it. Filling in the setup is gravy.

Oh, and a final note? Don’t throw away your ideas list! Tuck it away for a rainy day. You might be surprised how old thoughts can take on new life with just the right angle.

* * *

Prosers: You aren’t bound by rhyme, meter, or length. How does this apply to you? In my humble opinion, prose writers, too, should find their endings first.

Think of your novel as a sonnet. The last few chapters need to be your couplet. Why? Because that’s what your reader leaves with. Have you ever read a book with an exceptional concept and an unexceptional ending? Chances are they forgot to write their ending first. I hate it when I read a book or watch a movie with “alternate endings.” My way of thinking is: if this idea was properly thought out and developed, there would only be one possible ending to satisfy the consumer. The way to set up that perfect feeling of closure is to know going in how it’s all going to pan out.

And on a mini-scale, chapters are like this too. Write toward your ending. It gives you drive, direction, and a satisfying pay-off. There are exceptions, of course, but in general I’ve found this a helpful way to plot. How do you handle endings?

Sonneteers: Your assignment this week, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what you want to write a sonnet about. That’s it!

Need help brainstorming? Or do you already have some ideas? Feel free to talk about them (and to each other) below. The comments are a place for you to brag, share, ponder, and ask questions. And don’t worry about other folks stealing your ideas. Even if two people write a sonnet about the exact same thing, the end products will be two wildly different poems. Plus, this is a community effort, right? Many of us have never even written a poem before, so let’s all be supportive!

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  • Dahnya Och

    Hi Annie!

    Why couldn’t my HS English teachers explain sonnets like you do? Suddenly I have a much better idea of what I’m doing this month (instead of panicking in the corner).

    I think I’ve already got my idea for a sonnet based on an experience I had on the bus Friday night (I always get my best haiku from the bus, so why not a sonnet!) but I’m going to mull over it this week to see if I can figure out a good ending before I commit (or get committed, whatever).

    Thanks again for hosting this little shindig, Annie! It means a lot to us – how did you put it? – sonneteers.

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Dahnya, that makes me so happy to hear!

      You know, I had a professor in college who taught the course on John Milton. One night, he had us all write a sonnet for extra credit, to better appreciate the craft. When we turned them in, he proceeded to tell us that we were all terrible and that we should now all have full appreciation and respect for Milton’s sonnet writing because of it.

      I guess, in my subconscious, this blog series course is my rebuttal to that. He was a literature professor, not creative writing, so it was never his job to coach us in writing sonnets. But I still felt kind of cheated. That crappy sonnet I wrote was my first sonnet, and I’m lucky I ever even gave it another shot (a few years later, with a very good mentor guiding me this time).

      Some people, like that prof, want sonnets to seem intimidating, because it makes us revere the classics more. Personally, I think that’s a great way to kill an art form.

      Anyway, sorry for the random ramble here, but you really got me thinking. I’m glad you’ve got an idea going. And thank you so much for the sweet words. =)

  • http://twitter.com/LauraRaeAmos Laura Amos

    Oooh, I really love the relevance to novel-writing and the way an ending is formulated! Love it! I’m also one who writes her endings pretty close to beginning the work. If not the actual ending, then at least how it’s going to feel.

    Lucky me, I have a good dozen half-finished poems that I can pick through for sonnet ideas. I am EXCELLENT at half-finished poems, lol!

    I’ll report back when I’ve picked one. :)

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Haha, Laura! Aren’t we all? =)~ And thank you! I’m glad you like the prose tie-in. I know what you mean about the “feel” of an ending, as opposed to the actual details. I’ve done that before too. I guess it all depends on the book.

      Yes, I have saved many a half-started free verse poem by putting it into some sort of form. May the form be with you!

  • http://febemoss.wordpress.com/ Febe Moss

    great post! Never thought about creating the end for a poem before. I’ve been sitting in a poem idea for while. might work with that one. I’ve got homework woohoo!

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Thanks Febe! Yay homework! ;)

  • http://www.judyclementwall.com/ -j-

    I’m reassured by the ending being our beginning too. I just wrote eleven ideas down without stopping. I’ll muse endings to pick one. This is already more fun than I’ve ever had in a poetry class!

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Oh, yay! I’m so glad. Thanks J!

  • 83october

    It has already began and i was completely clueless. This particular step seems less intimidating. So I’m going to start listing topics. I’ll most definitely (well, i hope) i can follow through and even share my experience in my blog soon.

    It’s interesting how you suggest we think of the ending first. But before i jump to the ending, i might as well think of possible topics.

    I’m crossing my fingers and hoping i get the hang of a sonnet with this. :)

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      I would love to read about your experience when you’re through — that’s a great idea! I know you’ll be able to follow through. You’re a very special person.

      And you don’t have to think of the endings when you brainstorm — more after you brainstorm and before you choose, like J said. Good luck 83!

  • http://luramccartney.com/ Lura Slowinski

    Only one post in and already there’s plenty of food for thought and great tips! Things are crazy in my life right now (I haven’t written in a week as it is) so I might not be able to keep up with the sonnet class, but I’ll definitely revisit the stuff later when things quiet down.

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      No worries Lura! I’m not strict. ;) The beauty of it being online is that folks can get to it when they get to it. And thanks very much.

  • Angi217

    Annie,
    This was an awesome explanation, now I really get the idea of what my homework is! This guidlines, are very helpful and I´ll recomend them to all my classmates! 
    I´ll love you could check out my sonnet after I´m done, and help me fix it!
    Thank you very much! 

  • Rose

    Hi Annie,
    This helped me a lot with my homework. I would’have been lost without your help.
    Thank You!

  • Rose

    Thank You, Thank You….. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      You’re very welcome! So glad it helped!

  • AGuest

    Annie,
    Great article!
    I recommended this to my HS daughter for her home work.
    Thanks.

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Thank you! I hope it helps!

  • Blessing

    I really love your way of explaining, this really motivated me to do my last minute sonnet assignment due for my AP Literature class tomorrow. Thank you for the ideas!

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      My pleasure! Thanks for letting me know, and good luck with your assignment.

  • Cella

    This is AMAZing. Thank you so much, yo inspired me to write my last sonnet poem and I am pretty sure I just went brain-dead. Thanks again’

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Wonderful! Thank you!

  • Genesis

    thank you Annie you really helped me have a better perspective of this assignment

  • Genesis

    thank you Annie you really healed me thank you so much

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      I’m glad! Thanks!

  • Tim Bonacci

    WOW, this is amazing, it helped me so much. Thank you SO much

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      You’re welcome! Thanks!

  • Sarah Townsend

    Gosh. This helped me so much. My language teacher us preparing us for Pre-AP classes and just gave us this assignment. THANKS SO MUCH!!

    • http://www.AnnieNeugebauer.com Annie Neugebauer

      Awesome! Thanks for the comment, and good luck with the assignment!

  • Janja

    Thanks for the ideas they will really help æ

  • Talia

    Hey Annie, I am to do a sonnet and don’t really understand the topic. Can you help?