Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

Hungry for more lists of rules? :)

Kurt Vonnegut gives us these eight nuggets of wisdom (my comments interspersed):

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

Don’t pander, or write down to an audience for money. Write every story as well as you can, with every intention of making the reader remember your book for the rest of his or her life.

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

That doesn’t mean a character like them, or a character who only wants and does the right thing. See, for instance, Dan Wells’ character John Cleaver, a sociopath, a potential serial killer. Not a particularly relatable feeling for most of us (hopefully); is it possible to draw a reader in so they root for this character? Dan wrote an essay on this very topic, for John Scalzi’s Big Idea series. Read and learn.

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

Because wanting something is a motivation, and if you don’t have characters with motivation, what can they add to your story?

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

Every sentence. Not just chapter or scene or whatever. I’ll go one further and say every letter must advance or reveal. OK, not really.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

Have you listened to the talk about exposition? Don’t start your story trying to explain everything about your world’s setting or history or characters. Throw them into the fire (perhaps literally), and have us learn about the setting from the charred pile of dead unicorns in a square pit.

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.

Help us care about your characters. If you give them no opportunity to show their heroism or bravery or self-control or fightin’ skills, we won’t care about them, because the story isn’t interesting unless they’re being tested.

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.

See (1). Don’t write down in an attempt to gain readers, or try to jump into a popular market. Unless you had the vampire romance idea first.

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.

But the story should be so awesomely written that they will run out and buy another copy and a can of Raid. :)

(8 points by Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.)

One Response to Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. [...] Check out these two great resources to learn more about passive and active voice and commonly misused English words. “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”.—Kurt Vonnegut [...]

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