Step-by-Step Guide to Sonnet Structure
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is a sonnet?
  2. Identify the two main types of sonnets
  3. Explore the structure of an Italian sonnet
  4. Explore the structure of an English sonnet
  5. How to write an Italian sonnet
  6. How to write an English sonnet
  7. Familiarize yourself with rhyme schemes
  8. Learn about iambic pentameter
  9. Practice writing your own sonnets

Ready for a fun, friendly dive into the world of sonnets? Sonnets, a beloved form of poetry, have captured hearts and minds for centuries. Whether you're a student exploring English literature, a teacher looking to inspire a new generation, or a budding poet, learning to write a sonnet offers a unique chance to play with words, rhythm, and emotions. In this step-by-step guide, we'll unravel the intricacies of sonnet structure, showing you how to pen your own sonnet and truly appreciate this timeless art form. So, let's get started and teach you the sonnet structure in English literature.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a type of poem, and it's a bit like a puzzle. It's made up of 14 lines and has a very specific structure. Sonnets are known for their beautiful language and powerful emotions, often expressing love or deep thoughts. The word 'sonnet' comes from the Italian word 'sonetto', which means 'little song'. Isn't that a sweet way to think of it?

But don't be fooled by the 'little' part. While sonnets may be short, they are packed with meaning. Each line carries its weight, telling a part of the story. And remember, just like a song, a sonnet has rhythm and rhyme. It's not just about what you say, but how you say it. This rhythm and rhyme is what makes sonnets so special and fun to write. So, let's teach you more about the sonnet structure in English literature.

  • 14 lines: All sonnets have 14 lines. No more, no less. It's like a rule of the sonnet club.
  • Rhythm and Rhyme: Sonnets follow a specific rhythm, called iambic pentameter. Don't worry, we'll explain that later. They also have a set rhyme scheme, which varies depending on the type of sonnet.
  • Expression: Sonnets are all about expressing deep feelings. Love, sorrow, joy—you name it. The trick is to pack all that emotion into just 14 lines.

Now that you know what a sonnet is, it's time to delve deeper into the different types of sonnets, their unique structures, and how to write them. Ready to continue your journey to teach sonnet structure in English literature? Let's go!

Identify the two main types of sonnets

Now that we've dipped our toes into the world of sonnets, let's get to know the two main types of sonnets. They are the Italian sonnet, also known as Petrarchan sonnet, and the English sonnet, often referred to as Shakespearean sonnet. Remember, the main difference between these two types is their structure. Let's take a look:

  • Italian Sonnet (Petrarchan): The Italian sonnet is named after Petrarch, an Italian poet. This type of sonnet is divided into two sections: an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). The octave usually presents a problem or conflict, and the sestet offers a resolution or reflection. Sounds like a tiny drama play, doesn't it?
  • English Sonnet (Shakespearean): The English sonnet, named after the one and only William Shakespeare, has a different structure. It consists of three quatrains (four-line sections) and a final couplet (two lines). Each quatrain typically presents a different aspect of the main theme, and the final couplet offers a conclusion or a twist. Like a tiny story with a surprise ending!

Intriguing, isn't it? These structures might seem a bit intimidating at first. But don't worry, just like learning to ride a bike or bake a cake, it gets easier with practice. And the best part? Once you master these structures, you can start bending the rules and making your own unique twists. But first, let's explore each type in detail to help you better understand and teach sonnet structure in English literature. Ready? Onward we go!

Explore the structure of an Italian sonnet

Alright, time to dive a little deeper into the structure of an Italian sonnet. Remember, it's divided into an octave and a sestet. Let's see what that means:

The Octave: The first eight lines of an Italian sonnet form the octave. This is usually where the poet introduces a problem, a question, or a situation. It's like setting the stage for a mini-drama. The octave follows a rhyme scheme, usually ABBAABBA, though variations can occur.

The Sestet: The last six lines form the sestet. This is the part where the poet offers a resolution, reflection, or sometimes a complete shift in thought. It's like the reveal in a magic trick. The rhyme scheme here is more flexible, usually either CDCDCD or CDECDE.

So we could say, an Italian sonnet is like a mini-drama with a reveal, all wrapped up in just 14 lines. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

But wait, there's more! The transition from octave to sestet in an Italian sonnet often involves a 'turn' or 'volta'. This is a shift in the poem's direction, like a plot twist in a movie. It’s what makes reading and writing sonnets exciting!

Now that you've got the basics, you're well on your way to teach sonnet structure in English literature, specifically the Italian sonnet. Next up, we'll explore the English sonnet. Ready to continue our journey?

Explore the structure of an English sonnet

Now that we've seen the Italian sonnet, let's turn our attention to the English sonnet. Also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, the English sonnet has its own unique structure.

The Quatrains: An English sonnet is comprised of three quatrains, or groups of four lines each. This is where the poet introduces an idea or theme, then develops and expands it. It's like the 'act one, two, and three' of a play. Each quatrain typically has its own rhyme scheme, often ABAB, CDCD, and EFEF.

The Couplet: The sonnet concludes with a two-line couplet. This is where the poet delivers a grand reveal or a witty remark. It's the punchline of the sonnet! The rhyme scheme here is always GG.

So, an English sonnet is like a three-act play, complete with a punchline. The fun part about teaching sonnet structure in English literature is seeing how poets play around with this structure to create something truly unique.

But remember, the key to understanding sonnets is to read a lot of them. So, why not pick up a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets, or better yet, try writing your own? It's an excellent way to reinforce what you've learned about sonnet structure in English literature.

How to write an Italian sonnet

Ready to dip your quill into the inkwell and write an Italian sonnet? Well, here's the step-by-step process!

Step 1: Just like building a house, we start with the foundation. For an Italian sonnet, the foundation is the octave, which is the first eight lines. So, write down eight lines that follow the ABBAABBA rhyme scheme. The subject of your sonnet should be introduced and developed in these lines.

Step 2: Time for the sestet - the final six lines of the sonnet. These lines should follow the CDECDE or CDCDCD rhyme scheme. The sestet is where you twist the narrative, introduce a conflicting perspective, or offer a resolution to the issue you've presented in the octave.

Step 3: Now, review and refine your sonnet. Reading it aloud helps you catch any awkward phrases or discrepancies in the rhythm. Remember, an Italian sonnet should ideally follow the iambic pentameter.

And there you have it - your very own Italian sonnet! Teaching sonnet structure in English literature can be quite a task, but writing your own sonnet is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate the form. Plus, it's a fun challenge!

How to write an English sonnet

Now that we've journeyed through the Italian countryside of sonnets, let's cross the English Channel and explore the land of Shakespearean sonnets. So, how do you write an English sonnet?

Step 1: First, let's draft the quatrains. An English sonnet consists of three quatrains, or sets of four lines. Each quatrain should follow the ABAB rhyme scheme, and each line should ideally be written in iambic pentameter. In these 12 lines, introduce and develop your theme.

Step 2: Now, let's cap it off with a couplet. A couplet is a pair of lines that rhyme with each other. In an English sonnet, the couplet usually provides a twist, a summary, or a new insight related to the preceding quatrains.

Step 3: Review and refine your sonnet. Read it out loud, check the rhythm, and make sure the words flow smoothly. If you stumble or pause, you may need to revise that line.

And voila! You've just written an English sonnet. By writing and teaching sonnet structure in English literature, you're joining a long tradition of poets and scholars—quite a prestigious club, wouldn't you say?

So, whether you're exploring Italian landscapes or wandering through English gardens, remember: the structure of a sonnet is a guide, not a rule. Feel free to experiment and make the form your own. After all, that's the beauty of poetry!

Familiarize yourself with rhyme schemes

Now, let's add another tool to our poetry toolkit: rhyme schemes. If sonnets were houses, rhyme schemes would be the blueprints. They guide us on where to place rhyming words. But what is a rhyme scheme, and how can you use it to teach sonnet structure in English literature?

Step 1: Understand what a rhyme scheme is. A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhymes in a poem or song. In a rhyme scheme, we use different letters of the alphabet to represent different sounds. For example, in the rhyme scheme ABAB, the first and third lines rhyme with each other (A), and the second and fourth lines share a different rhyme (B).

Step 2: Get to know common rhyme schemes. For instance, an Italian sonnet typically uses the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA for its first eight lines, while an English sonnet often uses ABABCDCDEFEF for its three quatrains. Recognizing these patterns can help you read, write, and teach sonnet structure in English literature.

Step 3: Practice identifying rhyme schemes. You can do this by reading different sonnets and marking the rhymes. You'll soon find that recognizing rhyme schemes is a bit like solving a puzzle—fun, challenging, and definitely satisfying!

Remember, mastering rhyme schemes isn't just about following rules—it's about finding your unique voice within those rules. So, get out there and start rhyming!

Learn about iambic pentameter

Alright! Now that we've got a handle on rhyme schemes, let's move to another key ingredient in the sonnet recipe: iambic pentameter. Yes, it's a fancy term. But don't worry, it's not as complicated as it sounds. So, how can you teach sonnet structure in English literature using iambic pentameter?

Step 1: Break it down. 'Iambic' refers to the type of foot, or rhythmic unit, used in the line. An 'iamb' is a unique foot that consists of two syllables: a short (or unstressed) syllable followed by a long (or stressed) syllable. 'Pentameter' simply means we have five of these iambs in a line.

Step 2: Get a feel for the rhythm. Say out loud the classic example of an iamb: "allow". Notice how the second syllable is emphasized? That's iambic! Now, imagine a line with five of these iambs—that's iambic pentameter.

Step 3: Practice, practice, practice. Start by reading sonnets aloud, listening for the rhythm of the iambs. Then, try writing your own lines in iambic pentameter. It might be tricky at first, but with practice, you'll start to feel the rhythm naturally.

Understanding iambic pentameter is like learning a new dance. You might step on some toes at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be twirling around the dance floor—or in our case, the sonnet!—with ease.

Practice writing your own sonnets

Now comes the most exciting part of all: it's time for you to take all the tools you've learned and start to write your own sonnets. Ready to dive in and teach sonnet structure in English literature to yourself? Let's go!

Step 1: Choose a theme. Sonnets are often love poems, but they can tackle any subject. What's something you feel passionate about? That's your theme.

Step 2: Start small. Don't worry about writing a full sonnet right away. Maybe begin with a quatrain (a four-line stanza) in iambic pentameter. Remember to keep the rhythm: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.

Step 3: Develop your rhyme scheme. Whether you're writing an Italian sonnet with its octave and sestet, or an English sonnet with three quatrains and a couplet, keep your rhymes consistent.

Step 4: Revise. Like any piece of writing, your first draft won't be perfect. Don't be afraid to make changes, play around with words, and refine your rhythm.

Step 5: Share your work! Sonnets are meant to be heard. Once you're happy with your poem, read it aloud to yourself, or better yet, to a friend. Who knows? You might just inspire them to write their own sonnets!

Remember, learning to write sonnets is a journey, not a destination. Each sonnet you write is a step in the right direction. Keep practicing, and before you know it, you'll be teaching sonnet structure in English literature to others!

If you enjoyed learning about the structure of sonnets and want to explore more creative techniques, consider checking out 'Composing Complex Illustrations using Basic Shapes' by Juliet Schreckinger. While not directly related to sonnets, this workshop offers an exciting opportunity to learn new creative skills and apply them across different artistic disciplines, enriching your overall understanding of the creative process.