Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction – Pt1

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Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! Our terrific trio is back in action! For the first time in several weeks, Aaron, Heather and Steve are all on again! And Aaron brought a friend! Andrew Panebianco joins us this week to talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing fiction. And while we’ve done an episode on this before, it featured the worst sound quality we’ve ever produced, so we decided to take another crack at it. Our mixer died just prior to recording this, so the audio was taken from YouTube (again, not the best quality, but still way better than the last Vonnegut episode).

Hilarity ensues with the combination of us four. Check out the YouTube video below, or watch it here. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and Aaron on FacebookTwitteriTunes, and Stitcher. You can find Andrew on Facebook or read about his made up words here.

Kurt_Vonnegut_by_magnetic_eye1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Remember, your readers have not only invested time in your book, but also money. What I like about this rule is this: it reminds the author they have an audience. When they invest in our work, our work should be good enough to be considered time well-spent. If it isn’t, they’ll never read anything else we write. Readers can spend their time reading anything, doing anything, but they’ve chosen to read what you’ve written. Make sure it’s worthwhile.

One way to do this is to imagine your ideal reader. Stephen King talks about this in his book On Writing. For him, his ideal reader is his wife. Keeping a real person you know in mind will help you write something they’ll enjoy. If they enjoy your book, and they feel their time was well spent, and not wasted with endless boring details or superfluous information or unfulfilled promises or lazy prose, they will buy whatever you write.

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

Harry Potter is a fine example of this. He’s a boy out of his element, out of his league, and we feel for him. We’ve felt overwhelmed as well, and we’ve had over-achieving friends (and friends who are lazy clowns). Because these characters are relatable, we want to root for them. If there are no characters we care about, we’ll feel like our time has been wasted.

In one case, I read a story written from the perspective of a bad guy. He’s decided to do something very horrible, and that he was going to hurt someone. While the character he’d decided to hurt never really says anything, and we never get to see inside her head, I found myself rooting for her, though she wasn’t the protagonist. Also, the “bad guy” character wanted to change. He knew his desires were evil, and he wanted to be a good guy. No matter how bad he was, I found myself rooting for him to change, and rooting for the girl to make it to the end of the story without being hurt.

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

If your character doesn’t want anything, you have no story. By definition, conflict is what stands between a character and their desires. If you want to hear more about character motivation, you can check out our earlier podcast on the subject here. For now, suffice it to say, this rule goes hand-in-hand with the previous rule. If your character has no desire, we cannot root for him or her. Thus, the motivation must be clear to the reader.

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

While long scenes of description are fun from time to time, without context, the description is pointless. When you provide contextualization, readers will understand the importance of the scene. They’ll get to know your character better, or perhaps be pulled into a feeling of anxiety as you ratchet up the tension. If you have a scene that can do both of these, your readers will be doubly blessed.

This means, of course, that you need to make the hard call. If you’ve got a scene that’s not doing either of these, you’ll need to cut it, no matter how much you love it. Remember Hemingway’s rule? Kill your darlings? Here’s where you have to ask yourself the tough questions.

Due to the length of the episode, we’ve broken this one up into two.  Tune in next week for the final five rules.

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

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