Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Fiction

From American State:

Eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love these rules!! If I were still working with screenwriters (I used to consult for the writing portion of a film market), I’d print these out for everyone.

Screenwriters have the hardest time with #4 (myself included). When you have such a limited amount of space to tell a story, within such strict narrative parameters, you just can’t afford to go off on tangents. It may look lovely on the page, but if it doesn’t advance the story it’ll be deadly dull on the screen.

As for #6, What Vonnegut calls sadism I call risk. Without risk, there’s no real reason to care about the story, because risk engenders true suspense. Withholding information (as warned against #8) doesn’t yield true suspense, only a kind of curiosity–and curiosity doesn’t engage the heart. A writing cheat that particularly galls me goes something like this:

Jimmy had an idea–so crazy it just might work. “Gather ’round, everyone.” He began to whisper his plan. (end chapter)

This is just plain lazy. We’ve probably been following Jimmy’s adventure from an internally focalized third-person point of view, so pulling away at this point breaks all the rules of the narrative, all in the name of giving the reader something to wonder about. I see this a lot in YA fantasy manuscripts, and it drives me absolutely insane.

Today for work I read four kids’ books, all really short. One of them was quite good, the rest were written for the marketplace.

One thought on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Fiction”

  1. I read most of Vonnegut in about 3 months back in the late 80s – that’s about as close to superfast as I’m likely to get.

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