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 your 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.