Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part III: Anatomy Of The Sonnet

In the first part of this series I defined limits. In the second part I discussed meter.

Now I am going to be examining the sonnet, because it is the workhorse of English verse. It is a form that is easy to use and recognize and lends itself well to exploring a single theme or story.

There are dozens of forms of sonnets, some with tighter structure, some with looser. I’m going to talk about the kind that I use, which is often referred to as the English sonnet. It’s the form that I recommend for fiction authors as a tool for developing both an ear for rhythm and a sense of economy of language.

It is composed of three verses of equal length followed by a short verse which usual serves as a summation of the theme. Each verse is a distinct couplet, with its own rhyme scheme and meter. Sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter, but tetrameter (eight syllables in four metrical feet) is not common.

The rhyme scheme is ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG–that is to say that the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth, the fifth and seventh, sixth and eighth, ninth and tenth.

Let me give you an example of my own (the product description of Catskinner’s Book):

A stranger walks and lives alone
Or not alone, but rather wed
To one bloody as a murderer’s stone
Who lives locked up inside his head

Cut loose from cold comfort’s care
The stranger and his shadow twin
Seek, then find, the poisoner’s lair
And having found it, enter in

Another sundered soul they spy
Though cloven on a different line
The toothless mouth, the flowered eye
Yet in all else her aspect fine

His hands are red, her eyes are green
They hunt and fear the things unseen

The metrical line is primarily tetrameter, but the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth lines have seven syllables rather than eight. Honestly, that’s due to sloppiness on my part, I tend to write by ear rather than count out syllables.

However, the pairs of lines scan–that is to say that 1 and 2 are metrically consistent, as are 3 and 4, and so on.

Thematically, each verse expresses a part of the story.  The first verse describes James and Catskinner, the second describes the action of the first few chapters, the third introduces Godiva, the other main character, and the final couplet gives an overall picture of the novel–James and Godiva seeking after the Outsiders who are responsible for the events of the story.

Granted, it probably isn’t clear to anyone who hasn’t already read the book, but that’s another aspect of poetry–the constraints of formalism tend to impose a certain ellipticity of phrasing. Every syllable counts (whether or not you count them) and your word order is further constrained by having to fit the stresses in a particular order–plue, the last word of every line has to rhyme with at least one other line.

You have to find new ways to say things, and you have to say them succinctly–both very good skills for writers of fiction to have.

I would seriously recommend that any writer write a description of her or his books in sonnet form, just for the experience. It will force you to consider your work in a new way. However, posting the sonnets as book descriptions on Amazon is probably not for everyone. Personally I did it because my sales could, quite literally, not get any worse.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part III: Anatomy Of The Sonnet

  1. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part IV: Some Suggestions | mishaburnett

  2. Love it. Very cool idea and exercise.

    Man, these posts are making me realize how bad my English education was in school…I don’t really remember learning any of this stuff.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      You probably didn’t. I only learned it myself from my own reading. If poetry is mentioned at all in English classes the discussion is all about feelings and social significance, not about formalism.

  3. Anonymous incognito4444 says:

    I was fortunate that i did learn about the sonnet and some of the technical vocab thanks to a prof who luvvved Sheakspeare and was well versed in rhetoric. He made the technical aspects really interesting and he made us write one to see if we got it. Yes I sucked because at it but it was great fun to work with langugae like a carpentry tool.
    My only regret was my blind stupidty in not linking this with math. i think learning sonnets would’ve helped me appreciate math 🙂
    One question: how does the English sonnet differ from the Italian one?

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