This article was originally published by Assaph Mehr on his blog. It’s as poignant today as when Vonnegut first formed them, and is one of the best pieces of advice to writers everywhere.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing
I recently came across Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story. I thought they are pretty brilliant, regardless of the scope of you story (they could apply to a full-length novel just as much), so I have reproduced them below together with my thoughts about them.
- 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 highly apropos the modern era. Do you want books for free? I can bury you under a pile of free books in the genre of your choice that will take you more time to read than you have on this mortal coil. A lot of starting indie authors will tell you that they can’t even give away books.
So, no, we’re not after free books. We’re after good books (we just don’t like to pay a lot for them). This means that as an author I am not competing for a reader’s monetary budget – I am competing for his or her time. I need to deliver them an experience that is worth their time, more than just worth what they paid for it.
While admittedly our enjoyment is coloured by how we perceive value-for-money, I think in this context it’s more about making a promise and then delivering on it. By making a promise I mean that everything about the book – the cover, blurb, reviews, etc – should make it clear what experience waits for the reader inside. Once they read the book you have to deliver the best story you can, to fulfil your promise to give the reader something valuable for the time it took them to read.
No author sets out to waste readers’ time. This advice is about being conscious of it: it’s editing (from story structure to proofing), about trimming excess, and about delivering to expectations.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Like, y’know, Joffrey from Game of Thrones.
A bit more seriously, characters are what delivers the emotional pay-off for the reader. There are very few stories like Poe’s Purloined Letter that will stay with you regardless of character. Elaborate plots (whether a clever mystery or a fantasy saga) are so much more rewarding when we care about what happens to the people that live through them. In other words, no matter how clever Professor Moriarty’s plan is – it’s Sherlock we care about.
Invest some time with your characters, understand their motivations, plan an arc for them (simply put: a challenge and a change they will go through). Use diversity, but don’t force it. Make sure that the characters have needs, desires, flaws: things we can see ourselves in, and relate to. In short, make them people.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
I like to call it everyone is the hero of their own story. Of course, not everyone needs a full backstory – but wanting something is a quick way to make character dynamic, and with motivation and underlying reasons for their actions.
When a character walks into a scene you might need to flesh out their path and motivation in life in a commensurate measure to their role in the story (be it small or large – though remember, there are no small parts in plays), just enough to make sure that they are not just painted scenery. In their minds, they are busy going from A to B trying to carry out their lives. The fact that they touch upon the story and the protagonist is incidental.
If you give every character even a tiny path and a motivation, it both makes writing their actions easier and makes them appear deeper and more relatable to readers.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Simple enough: remove the fluff. Don’t fall into long expositions, purple prose, etc. Think of it as an elaboration of rule number 1 above – don’t waste the reader’s time.
You may be proud of all the backstories and world notes you’ve written in response to point 3 above, but that doesn’t mean it has to make it to the page. In fact, I’d say that for a good story you have to know just a bit more that is on the page. Just enough to give the world depth, without forcing every nook and cranny on the user. You can save exploring them to later books, when they become relevant. I think Jim Butcher handles this very well in the Dresden Files series (review next week), as each book explores new aspects of his paranormal world and exposes more back story, just as needed. In a longer work you have more space to “set the mood”, as it were, but even then you need to focus on advancing either character or plot.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
Again with the long expositions. In a way, a logical result from rules 1 and 4 above. Don’t waste time, get on with the meat of things.
In cases where you are writing a saga, take a clue from James Bond movies. Start with an action scene, then move to a lower key piece as you build up the main suspense (without taking to long about it).
A book I’m reading now does it beautifully. A classic start with foreshadowing and some action, then building up the main hook. The character’s past is hinted at without explanation, but as events unfold some concurrently running flashbacks are giving current events more emotional depth. The author is weaving the story-lines well, without falling into the trap of cheesy flashbacks. It all serves to show how you can world-build or handle backstories in pieces along the way, while still keeping as close to the action, the meat of the story, as possible.
- 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.
A point I think every author starts struggling with. We breathe life into our characters, and we love them dearly. Why on earth would we want to harm and torment them?
Because it makes a better story, that’s why. It make the readers care more, want to read to the end. Take a page from George RR Martin, or from the later Harry Potter books. I’ve seen it said and done across other genres as well, and I think it applies equally from pulp thrillers to romance. The nature of the pinch might be different, but the idea is the same: something so dark, you can’t possibly see how the character will get out of it. This makes the eventual resolution more satisfying.
As an author, I’ve read it said that you should write what feels just a bit over the top for you (sorry, can’t remember where I came across it). Pushing the events in your story just a step over the border of OMFG-territory might feel a too much for you, but it’s what comes across as gripping to readers.
- 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.
I’ve always been an advocate of telling the stories I want to read, and taking feedback with a grain of salt. There is nothing wrong with writing to fill a popular market niche, and editors and beta readers will have valid opinions about your story.
But at the end of the day, it’s your baby, your name on the cover. No one (no one!) can tell in advance if a book will be a best seller, so you might a well write the stories you enjoy reading (and re-reading). You can never please everyone, so concentrate on pleasing the one person that matters the most.
- 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 one I’m struggling the most. I don’t think it’s just the mystery writer in me, but as a reader too. Yes, for the majority of novels we can safely assume that the good guys (or at least protagonists) will prevail. We know it’s heading for a climax of a particular type (e.g. a clash with the antagonist), but that doesn’t mean readers should be able to write the ending.
Rather, I’d focus on the words “complete understanding of what is going on, where and why”. There is a very famous quote by Hitchcock, where he explains the difference between suspense and surprise: if two people are talking and a bomb explodes, that’s 15 seconds of surprise. If two people are talking but the shot keeps showing the bomb under their table ticking down, that’s 5 minutes of suspense.
Dealing with books, I – as a reader – dislike it intensely when the protagonist surprisingly draws the right gizmo to save the moment. It smells far too much like deus ex machina, of lazy writing. When instead the protagonist tells you they made a stop to pick something up from an antique shop or to talk to an old acquaintance on the way to the showdown – even without any further details – it makes the eventual arrival of the cavalry a lot more sensible. It’s even easy to do during writing: you don’t need the stroke of genius ahead of time, you just go back and add the right references at the right point in the story.
Going back to Vonnegut’s advice, I think it resonates of the same ideas. Make the readers aware of what’s going on, be clear of who is doing what to whom, when and where. You can spring surprise twists where they’re appropriate, but littering clues that are only visible on second read makes the reader appreciate them more. Not only you can still build up suspense that way, it’s also more rewarding.
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I hope you find the above useful. Vonnegut’s words were the most concise and effective I could find, amongst the words of many authors. I’d love to hear your thoughts about them!
Assaph is the author of the award-winning Murder In Absentia – a story of Togas, Daggers, and Magic. It’s a book for lovers of Ancient Rome, Murder Mysteries, and Urban Fantasy.
He also blogs regularly about the art & craft of writing, about ancient Rome, and about whatever shiny thing catches his fancy at egretia.com.
If you’d like a unique insight into books, you can visit his other project The Protagonist Speaks. It’s a blog dedicated to interviewing the characters out of books.