Kurt Vonneguts Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

More writing rules! This week, we look at what the incredible Kurt Vonnegut had to say about fiction. I’ve written about this before, so each heading is a link to a previous post with more information and insights on that particular rule. Here’s what Steve and I have to say about Vonnegut’s eight rules*. Listen below, or download it here.

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kurtvonnegut1. 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.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

The popular example of this is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He cut the first two chapters from the story, and most critics regard it as one of his finest openings. If you recall our episodes on first lines and first pages, you’ll remember how we encouraged you to open with some conflict. The technical term for this strategy is “en media res,” and it’s a tried-and-true strategy. However, it’s not completely necessary.

When you look at your opening, do you have a ton of superfluous information? A bunch of unneeded exposition? We usually do, especially for us pantsters. We start writing to discover where we’re going, and the first three chapters end up becoming little more than blind authors poking around in the dark until they find a wall to follow. Trim out the aimless wandering in the dark, and get us 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.

I love this rule. It’s perfect for pantsters. Whenever I find my stories lulling, I throw another obstacle between my characters and their desires. I make bad things happen to them, even though I love them. The magic of this is that it helps us understand how our characters react to adverse situations, and we get to see “what they’re made of.” For example, imagine you’re writing about two writers who start a podcast about writing, and as they’re recording, the dogs next door start barking. And they keep barking. All your characters want is a nice, clean recording, but these dogs are ruining it all. See that? Conflict.

Try to avoid making this too obvious, though. Don’t throw in things that aren’t related to the story. If you’re writing a chick-lit romance, try to avoid random alien abductions (same for westerns or Amish fiction). Such blatant, unrelated conflict comes across as cheesy and unbelievable. That said, if you do feel like your sadism has compromised the believability of your storyline, make sure you go through and foreshadow it so it makes sense, and it feels like you’ve been working toward the aliens the whole time (read Stephen King’s Under the Dome. I’m pretty sure he does this. A lot.)

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.

This rule brings us back to Stephen King’s idea of the ideal reader. If you write a book to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. Find a person who embodies your target audience, and think about them as you write. Ask yourself, “What would Bob think about this? How would Sally like that?” If Bob and Sally are in your target audience, keep them in mind. Show them your stuff. Let them be an alpha reader or a beta reader. If they don’t like something, they’ll let you know.

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.

Here’s the thing: we don’t trust people who don’t tell us things. Imagine someone who has information you need, but they refuse to tell you. You don’t like them, do you? They frustrate you, and you may want to punch them a little bit. Why then do writers think it’s okay to deliberately withhold information from their readers? “They’ll love this! I’ll tease them! Everyone loves being teased. Everyone loves having a carrot dangled in front of their face.”

Protip: Readers are not Charlie Brown. They buy books to get information. If writers keep teasing them, putting a football out for them to kick, then pulling it away when their foot is about to make contact, they won’t love them for that. Instead, they’ll get mad, and maybe press charges for pain and suffering and criminal teasing.

I’m a huge fan of suspense and tension and mystery, but not at the expense of deliberately withholding information from the reader. I think suspense comes from the information you give your readers. I visit this idea in an old post called Mystery v. Murky. It’s worth a read.

The best mysteries come from an abundance of information, not a dearth of it. Readers love knowing, love guessing what might come next. Don’t be a jerk and hold back information. If your characters know it, the readers should know it. Avoid ending scenes with the cliche, “Bob told Sally his plan.” If Bob tells it to Sandy, we should hear it. Or the (REALLY) offensive information-witholding abuse of “She refused to think of it.” Mularky. Shennanigans. She thought of it, so we should know.

The more information a reader has, the more they want to read. The less they have, the more they want to put the book down.

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

15 Comments on Kurt Vonneguts Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Love the podcasts, but you guys HAVE to record somewhere else. The barking dogs are impossible to ignore.

    • Thanks, Pete. Glad you’re enjoying the casts. Good news! Starting with episode 11, we do record in a new location, and the sound quality will be much better. 🙂 Thanks for sticking with us!

  2. Good to hear. I’m amazed how our mind can isolate and remove background noise in person, but in a recorded format, we can’t separate the sounds. Keep up the good work.

    • Right? If we hadn’t have been 15 minutes into our 25 minute cast, we would have redone it, but those dogs would still have been barking. *SIGH*. Roll with the punches, right? I’m excited to post episode 11. The sound quality will be much improved. Steve’s been hard at work at stepping up the professionalism of the cast so the quality of the recording matches the quality of the information. 🙂 Thanks for listening, man.

  3. I agree with #3 because if the main character or characters don’t want something weather its a change or to sleep then the book doesn’t really have purpose, yes its readable but why read it.

  4. When i write my goals are to make sure my readers trust me and by the end of the book i would have been able to tie up all the loose strings,tie it all in and have it make sense.And as for the rules i would say number 5.

  5. Goals for me are mostly about emtertaining the reader and not dissapointing. I like to shock readers but tie it all up at the end

  6. I agree with 6. It doesn’t seem realistic if nothing bad ever happens to them.

  7. Adriana Coonce | November 5, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply

    I like #3 it is not a good book if the character doesnt want something. it doesnt make since to me. I dont understand how the writer can continue to write the book.

  8. Jonathan Davila | November 8, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply

    I like to use step 2 in a broader aspect, that there are several characters to shoot for depending on the readers personality.

  9. I agree with Adriana if the readers not striving for anything then why are you even reading it? You want to keep reading to see if the character achieves his goal.

  10. these rules just make sense and i feel that they will make me a better writer.

  11. I especially use this ability when writing a story. I think of who I want to be writing for and then base the story off things they can relate to and agree with.

  12. Rule number 5 is amusing. It’s like giving the reader a piece of cake, and then taking it away and giving it back in moderation. Starting with the conflict is a good way to tie the reader to the book.
    Rule number 6 should be a natural way of writing. How could someone write about a character if their life is flawless?
    It’s nice to see all the rules in one place like this, Thanks

  13. I agree with 3 because if the character doesn’t want anything then there is nothing to really root for.

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