Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most influential writers of this century, passed down a simple list of rules for writing a short story, though I think they can be applied to longer narratives as well.

He did say that Flannery O’Connor broke all his rules except the first and that great writers tend to do that, but I believe his famous eight rules can provide a skeleton to writing fiction.

And I think that this is what’s really important in art. A foundation. Simply by reading or following rules, or by taking creative writing courses, but it’s also crucial for the artist to make his own decisions. The moment rules start feeling like a cage, you should escape. It’s like strolling through a garden and picking the flowers you like. If you absorb too much or if you simply follow rules (someone else is choosing what flowers you should pick), you’ll never develop a style of your own.

In a world of fixed rules, there’s no room for improvement. Or improvisation. Or evolution.

In today’s post, I’m going to analyze Vonnegut’s famous rules, most of which are common sense anyway. So let’s get started.

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

I think this is the most difficult rule. How do you do that? How can you be sure that others will enjoy what you write? I don’t know who said this, but it’s true: the moment writing feels like homework, you should stop. If you write about something you’re passionate about, some people are going to enjoy reading it.

If there are parts in your stories that YOU skip reading, then by all means delete them. If there are parts that you feel don’t work, edit them. As long as you don’t settle for a decent story, as long as you don’t feel that you yourself are wasting time by writing this story, as long as you know you have something to say, then I’m sure that a lot of readers are not going to ask for their time (and money) back. And hopefully you won’t receive any death threats in the mail.

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

Think about Sherlock Holmes or Jay Gatsby. Think about a specific combination of qualities and flaws, a set of quirks, desires, passions, wants.

A perfect character is boring. I think that the “big secret” of character development is that you have to build a character that’s as close to a real human being as possible. What makes Sherlock Holmes great is that even though he possesses an intellect greater than that of most people, he’s also flawed enough that readers can still connect with him, can still believe he could exist in the real world.

The characters that stick with us long after we read a book are the ones that remind us of people we know. Characters that have traits that we have or wished we had.

This also applies to the world of Fantasy or Science Fiction. The human “core” within every character, what remains after you take away all the powers, the special abilities, etc. is what resonates with readers.

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

Another fantastic rule. Think of a murder mystery. You’ve got a bunch of suspects, each with specific motivations. You couldn’t just add characters for the sake of it.

How I see it, stories progress in two ways: things happen to characters and characters make things happen. Plot is either externally driven by certain events or internally driven, by characters deciding to strap a bomb to their chest and blow up the world.

And it can be tricky to integrate all the characters in the complex mechanism of a story, but Vonnegut provides an answer for that. A glass of water, such an insignificant thing to wish for within the grand scheme of a novel. But it’s something someone could want, isn’t it? So the character can play a modest role, but that character still wants something, right? It doesn’t even have to affect the main story arc.

Also I think there’s more to this rule. Listen to your characters.

A lot of writers have this idea about where the story is supposed to be headed and don’t want to listen to their characters. There are a lot of stories out there with artificially created plots. You can almost feel that the author is controlling things too closely. It feels forced.

Let me tell you a secret. I don’t like how Jazz ends. As a reader, as a person, I feel that Chris Sommers doesn’t deserve the ending he gets. But I couldn’t write the damn thing otherwise. It may even sound crazy, but he demanded that of me. So I did the next best thing.

If you’ve read Jazz, you know the ending is rather ambiguous. That’s why. It could go either way, basically. Also, considering that it’s a first person narrative, it also works well with that whole “the ending is where you stop your story” type of thing. In a way, the real ending is the one the reader chooses, an ending that takes places after the camera stops shooting.

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

Every sentence should be there for a purpose. It can be a two-page description of a building as long as it adds something new about a character. Or something like that.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

Seven years ago I opened a story with a character waking up. It took me so long to get to the part where something actually happened that I got bored half-way through the chapter.

Yeah, I know, it’s a terrible cliche, that one with a character waking up. It was lame. So I did something else. Gave my character a gun. He’s holding the gun in his hand, inspecting the device, while the alarm’s shattering the morning stillness. He doesn’t bother to turn off the alarm, it’s as if he doesn’t even hear it.

So now, something does happen.

My idea is that stuff has to happen, not just for the sake of something happening, but because it has to happen, because it reveals character or advances the action. From the first sentence, you have to build momentum.

That’s why it’s a bad idea to write about a character’s morning routine, unless the routine itself tells us something about that character. I’m pretty sure that there aren’t a hell lot of people who spend their mornings staring at a gun.

6. Be a Sadist. No 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.

I love this one.

A bunch of perfect characters living a perfectly happy existence in a perfect world doesn’t make much of a story.

Call me cruel or whatever, but the truth is that a big part of life is tragedy. We have to experience it, witness it, read about it in the newspaper.

In The Writer, my main character goes through hell on more than one occasion. But he also gets the opportunity to confront his fears, to strengthen his beliefs, and to decide who he wants to be. His father dies – this makes him want to kill himself. He’s sure he’s useless, he has nothing to add to the world. And then a drug addict shoves a gun down his throat… that’s when he feels more alive than ever before. He realizes that he doesn’t really want to die.

Ok, enough spoilers for today.

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.

Another fantastic advice.

A lot of writers like to play it safe. They want to please everybody. They just don’t want to offend. I’m not saying that you should write about controversial subjects, but the truth is that you can’t please everyone. Instead, you have to make a stand. You have to choose a side. Yeah, it’s going to divide people; some will agree with you, other’s won’t, but I think this is far better than all your readers being indifferent.

This rule works well with that ideal reader thing. Imagine your ideal reader. It’s also a great way to figure out your target audience. It’s far easier to imagine (or actually find) a person that truly enjoys your writing, to figure out their hobbies, passions, etc.

If you find one person who loves your writing, you can be sure you’ll find plenty others.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.

This is the only rule I don’t really agree with. And I think it’s the most specific of them. It worked great with Vonnegut in some of his stories, but the way I see it, there’s a difference between flooding the reader with information and offering crucial insight into what’s going on. Or hinting at what’s going on.

Also there’s this thing that some writers treat readers like idiots. I think that a writer should give his readers credit… they’re actually smarter than he thinks. Readers like to figure things out for themselves, to solve puzzles, to gain understanding of where a story is going before the main character does.

But if they can figure things out too early, they won’t be motivated enough to finish reading.

And it’s a difficult balancing act, this one. Too much information and you’ll readers will be better off reading random articles on Wikipedia. Not enough, and your readers won’t be able to figure out what’s going on.

I’d rephrase this rule like this: Give your readers enough information so they can understand what’s going on, where and why, but still want to finish the story.

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76 comments on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story

  1. exiledprospero says:

    Yes, I had seen this list before–and I still remember all the elements. That must mean it's a good list!

  2. Dip It Black says:

    Beautiful post!

    Really helpfull!

    Thanks :)

    X
    http://dipitblack.wordpress.com

  3. He was brilliant. What a shame he's not around anymore. There will never be another story about Kilgore Trout. Great post.

  4. jmd5717 says:

    Thanks for the post enjoyed it

  5. I've followed some of those rules before, and I've broken plenty of them too. I definitely followed the rule about giving your characters misery: an orphan confronted by racism, Islamaphobia, gang violence, and a conspiracy; a recovering addict; a kidnap victim; a child soldier; need I go on?

  6. This list appears in Bagombo Snuff Box, doesn't it? Prefaced this list with an explanation of the act of reading a short story being a bit like a 'buddhist cat nap', which is nice way of putting it.

  7. Great list! Vonnegut knew his stuff. We use it and recommend it all the time :)

  8. Jae says:

    I'm thinking of venturing into short stories, thanks so much for sharing this! Valuable advice for novelists too!

  9. Great advice for writers–invaluable

  10. I met Kurt V. at a college seminar in Boston, 1968. Gave a fascinating lecture although I thought he was a real character himself! His words stayed with me however, even allowing me to incorporate his ideas into my novel, "Sometimes Marriage is a Real Crime" so many years later. Funny how some say college is a huge waste of time. Joke's on them huh? Thanks for the memories.

  11. foresterartist says:

    Great post Cristian, thanks.

  12. Piscis says:

    I must agree with your reservations on the eighth. Being able to chew on the complexities of a plot is one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading, for me. There are few things I like more in a story than that moment, right before the narrative reveals it, where everything suddenly clicks in your head. But to create that moment is a balancing act, indeed.

  13. Great advice and a list worth sharing, which I will as well. Thanks, Cristian.

  14. WH says:

    Great commentary on Vonnegut's list! When I have some time, I will apply it to some of my work. Thanks for sharing!

  15. ribbie says:

    One of my favorite writers. I should heed some of his advice.

  16. I am a beginner at 57 because I took a 30 year sabbatical to raise nine kids. You have saved me a lot of time and a lot of grief-thank-you

  17. umashankar says:

    I have read them before and it was a pleasure to read it again. I just wish to insert my humble note -of dissent, if I may dare- I do not agree with all the points, especially the one that says 'start as close to the end as possible'.

  18. koakinc says:

    Very good/useful post

  19. This is very helpful. I am never short on ideas. The problem is getting them down in a manner that interests people.

  20. I just finished 'While mortals sleep' and loved it!!

  21. [...] Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  22. I'm writing about Flannery O'Connor tomorrow, and I agree with Kurt- she does break all rules except the first one. Great post, thanks for the list!

  23. Gypsy Bev says:

    Great list. I have saved it for future reference. Your articles are very helpful.

  24. camc1105 says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! great stuff.

  25. I am a fan of Rule #4- advancing the action. Perhaps that's why I love verbs so much. Carefully selected verbs really tend to set things in motion.

  26. nishi01 says:

    Thank u, thank you…will keep the rules in mind.

  27. Excellent advice. I return to my studio to complete a story. Thanks for post and commentary.

  28. rabiro says:

    Great advice I must say! Thanks for posting and commenting on it.

  29. Morrighan says:

    the part about giving the readers enough to know what's going on is soooo true! i've tried to read books that have me into like 50-60 pages and i'd still be trying to figure out what the story is about,after awhile i just get bored with it and quit reading it. monday i'm going to order one of your books from amazon..woohoo shopping with my student loans!! :-)

  30. Great list! It will come in very useful. Thanks for sharing it to the world, I'll certainly apply it in my future works. It is amazing how we can today be surrounded by so much inspiration and feedback, all from ones home, I feel very grateful about it.

  31. I agree with WH! Great commentary, you've brought something new to Vonnegut's list and given us something to really chew over.

  32. creeped says:

    The 8 rules are in many ways obvious, but it is still great to consider and reflect on them. Your commentary is very insightful.

    I think rules 4 and 7 are particularly poignant.

    It's so easy to write a sentence for the sake of it or to "show your craft", but if it doesn't make sense or actually add anything, then it should go.

    And trying to please everyone is very tempting, but it will end up being very flat and dishonest.

    I also agree with you sentiments on rule 8. If you don't give enough clues, a piece can be impenetrable. However, a little intrigue works when the story warrants it.

  33. jomaidment says:

    Useful my main flaw as a writer is that I think I often let the characters and story take over so much that I as the writer lose the direction and find it difficult to re-focus and really finish what I started

  34. mrs fringe says:

    Valuable advice, well worth re-reading and remembering as we write. I particularly like your thoughts on rules 7 and 8. That balance between not treating your reader like an idiot, and yet making sure your writing has enough clarity to remain interesting, always important to keep in mind as we write and as we edit.

  35. This is a great list, although I tend to agree with you on the last item. And with very little reframing, it's amazing how much this list can be applied to other areas of the arts.

  36. cuhullen says:

    Useful (including the commentary and the parts I will ignore) . Thanks as always.

  37. Mary says:

    Agree Creeped… It’s so easy to write a sentence for the sake of it or to “show your craft”, but if it doesn’t make sense or actually add anything, then it should go. Hard to kill them off sometimes though… am hoping my collections of 'good ones' will eventually make up a story in themselves:-)

    http://www.stolenchild66.wordpress.com

  38. Such a great post! I love these rules, and though some were already familiar I will definitely try to keep this post in mind when I next write. And it's nice to see that I'm not the only sadist in the room – I've always enjoyed seeing my favourite characters suffer as, like you say, it reveals so much about them! I was also pleased to see Rule #4, as it's very similar to what I tell others when I'm proofing or subbing work.

    Rule #8 is perhaps the only one that can't (or shouldn't!) be applied to a longer work. I don't really take it to mean that you give the narrative away, but more that in a shorter form there's no point subtly introducing a Chekhov's Gun when the reveal is only a few scant paragraphs later. Maybe it's more about stripping away the frills in order to get to the heart of the story, so the reader feels the impact throughout, rather than the slow build that a full novel can give you…

    Thanks x

  39. otownmommy says:

    this is a great list, and i really enjoyed the way you explained it. I found myself thinking of examples as i read it, and noting the books that really bored me, or excited me. thanks

  40. Urban Daddy says:

    One of my absolute favourite writers from when I was young. I remember seeing this list. I liked the approach you took in analyzing it.

  41. Áine Warren says:

    Thanks for sharing – definitely food for thought!

  42. ClewisWrites says:

    This list is just one more reason why he is one of my most favorite writers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on his pointers.

  43. cafeaulait13 says:

    This sounds really useful! I can't wait to try.

  44. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Thought you'd like to know that I copied this off your blog and saved it to my fiction folder – I had never seen these before. I agree with you about his last comment.

  45. Great points! Several of them deal with "tight" writing which is something I have a problem with, so I appreciate the reminders.

  46. shrey says:

    I agree with all the rules except the last one. I think this one is dependent on the style of thinking and writing of the person.

  47. Boobieslifeandluster says:

    What a post.

  48. atlasdrowned says:

    "If you open a window and make love to the world, your story will get pneumonia." There's a quote to remember :) if you're hoping to make money from writing then it's always a delicate balance to write for yourself without alienating readers. It's a good, common-sense list – I remember taking a short creative writing course where the tutor always stressed, a great story is always about a struggle.

  49. Excellent list by Kurt Vonnegut.

    There's one very important point that this list is missing though. The "Why?".

    It's important for you as a writer to ask yourself why you want to write the story you plan to write? Or why you choose to say what you are trying to say?

    It might be quite a metaphysical question but can lead the writer to a better understanding of both himself/herself and the story itself. Sometimes, such meta introspection will lead one to the conclusion that a said story might not be worth writing at all. At other times, a larger, better perspective might arise from such an introspection. For otherwise, without this "why", any work will just be a whim of the writer with little or no value to the world around the writer.

    At least that's how a good work of literature gets created. About popular fiction, well, that's another story.

  50. Sophia says:

    Thanks for this post. It gives me a lot to think about.

  51. The Economic Vegetar says:

    This is a fantastic post! I'm a big fan of Vonnegut but never came across this short story writing guide before. Already starting to identify problems with my own short stories that are currently in progress. No wonder I kept getting stuck! Cheers :)

  52. Great list. Writing fiction scares me, ,though! I think fiction writers are absolutely brilliant. Someday, maybe, I'll try my hand at it! I do agree about rules, though. It's good to have them, but it's okay to break them. I use to teach high school English. I had a list of writing rules for my students. They would argue and complain about them and find me examples of published authors who broke "my rules." I would tell them that once you are good enough to write with the rules, you then have permission to break them. But only break them if you're breaking them on purpose, with intentionality and a reason that writing against that rule was actually better than following the rule.

  53. I enjoy reading your insights. If I could add my own:

    #4: Every sentence should either show character or advance plot.

    This is perhaps the one I strive hardest to abide by, since I tend to ramble so often. I especially aim to satisfy this condition when working out dialogue.

    #6: Make awful things happen to your characters.

    I remember an article years ago in The Writer magazine. the author found that the best way to resolve a character's problem was to introduce another problem, then another, until a tipping point was reached and the character had no choice but to find an answer.

    #8: Give the readers enough information.

    I prefer Lawrence Block's advice (Telling Lies for Fun and Profit): "Tell the story in the order the reader benefits the most."

  54. I totally agree with your disagreement with number 8. I love stories that keep me guessing until the last page. Those are the best.

  55. The best advice for writer's block is to make something awful happen to one of your characters. Even if you decide to delete the scene where it takes place, it will likely introduce you to something new about the character's personality and end your writer's block. T bet Kurt Vonnegut never had writer's block. Thank for this great tribute to him.

  56. Great points and great analysis. I agree with what you say about the final point. One doesn't want to bombard.

  57. [...] Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story (cristianmihai.net) Rate this:Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Filed under Business/Management, Writing/Books and tagged Business Introductions, Character (arts), Character introduction, Fiction, Fiction writing, Introductions, Short story, Writers Resources, Writing tips | Leave a comment [...]

  58. Giovanni says:

    Great ideas, Christian. Glad you brought them up here. I especially lke numbers 5 & 6 – it's the way I think too.

  59. supashmo says:

    Love this one. Gotta remember these.

  60. SSpjut says:

    Reblogged this on SSpjut | Writer's Blog | Stardate and commented:
    A friend of mine sent me this post over the weekend and since I thought it brilliant I figured, why not share the brilliance with others. Like Miahi, I agree that ultimately, it is the characters that tell their own story, but just like children, they still need enough structure to keep the landscape within sight, yet not lose their creativity. Enjoy.

  61. SoWeTo? says:

    very helpful. thank you.

  62. imaginarylea says:

    Good list, brilliant comments from you! : )

  63. N.T. Wiliams says:

    Unfortunately, I have not read any of Vonnegut's works, but I love this list, especially #6. I think Sadism is crucial in advance a story and developing a character, so it really plays off of #4. But that is what I think. Thank you for posting this list! I really enjoy reading your blog.

  64. PatriseArts says:

    this is brilliant! I'm posting it on my wall for NaNoWriMo and beyond.

  65. Pani Peonia says:

    "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 this…

  66. Far from a writer but now who knows….thanks !

  67. SoSaysSunny says:

    I had the honor of attending a seminar by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., at the University of Georgia in 1989. The title of his talk was something along the lines of: "How to Get a Job Like Mine". Of course his speech was nothing of the sort — it was a stream-of-conscious collection of humorous anecdotes and answers to audience questions.

    If you haven't already, be sure to read Vonnegut's WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE, it's a collection of short stories and my absolute favorite. I have a crush on EPICAC and HARRISON BERGERON. I sometimes fear I'm becoming the lady in MORE STATELY MANSIONS.

    For another amusing take on literary rules, check out Mark Twain's essay FENIMORE COOPER'S LITERARY OFFENCES at The Project Gutenberg website:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3172/3172-h/3172-h

  68. Becca says:

    I read every word. (Not all the comments, though. That would be going overboard.)

  69. jasonandersonri says:

    Terrific post — I'm bookmarking it because I know I'll want to read it again!

  70. Great post! I think these rules come in pretty handy :) Thanks for sharing.

  71. Dear Cristian,
    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for posting. I often feel as though blogging, even if it’s just about seeming mundane things, is rather akin to writing a short story, and this article is just the sort of thing that will help me on this new writing adventure of mine. Many thanks for the post!
    Cheers,
    E

  72. Dear Cristian,
    I love your blog! It’s interesting and choc full of useful information! I will really enjoy following you! Leigh

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