Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vonnegut Rules

The subject of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. came up in an earlier post about Hunch, which caused me to reminisce and do some major musing about the master's work. One of the most valuable educational tools I learned from Vonnegut was his Eight Rules of Writing. These gems of knowledge are credited to his book, BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX: UNCOLLECTED SHORT FICTION (though this advice may have been tailored to short stories, I think it applies to novels equally well).

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. 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.

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 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.

In considering Vonnegut's Eight Rules, I think #8 is the one I violate most often. When you're a writer, you're in a state of constant re-evaluation. I've re-evaluated and I'm making an effort to share more information with the reader sooner--to let them in on the secrets--so they can develop a deeper stake in the characters' conflicts and torment. Sometimes revealing information is best not left to the end of the story. This shouldn't be confused with a plot twist, which is an element that neither the reader nor characters see coming.

Do you have a favorite Vonnegut rule?


  1. I love #7. It's a good reminder that you can second-guess your story to death.

  2. That's a good one, especially when you start getting conflicting feedback. What feels right for that one most important


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