Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

My first Poetry Professor once told me something that I remember to this day. When I insisted that I wrote exclusively free form poetry, he asked me if I wrote any form poems. I told him no, I didn’t like rules. He looked me in the eye, and in the way a father corrects a son—a nugget of wisdom wrapped in steel wool—said, “You must know the rules before you can break them.”

Of course I was young and thought he was too full of himself to recognize my talent. But then I learned the rules, and learned that I had no poetic skill to speak of, primarily because I’d not bothered to take the time to learn the rules of poetry.

Fiction is very similar. In virtually every writing class I’ve had, there’ve been two lines of thoughts: The first is writing “by the rules.” The other is that “rules were made to be broken.” I tend to be somewhere between the two. Rules were made because they’ve been proven to work. However, for every “rule” we can come up with, there’s an exception—a successful story or novel that eschews tradition and forges ahead successfully to wide critical acclaim. But these are few and far between.

Additionally, there have been countless attempts to write amazing novels that break “all the rules.” These, by and large, are Hindenburg type failures.

I return to what my professor said. If you know the rules, you will know when to break them—that is to say, what effect the breaking of that rule will have on the reader. You will understand the risk and reward. You will understand which “rules” can be, and sometimes should be, broken, and those which should remain intact. There’s a fine line between the two.

In Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite writers) lists eight rules for writing fiction. Over the course of the next eight weeks or so, I’ll look at these, and provide my meager commentary on his “rules.” I’ll tell you which I think are sound, and the possible risks and rewards for breaking them.

Stay tuned.

A note from the blogger: On a completely separate note, and at the risk of sounding like an affection-starved child; don’t be afraid to leave comments. I love hearing from you, whether you disagree or agree. I’m sure you may not agree 100% with what I say. Seldom do two writers ever agree on things like “rules” etc. So feel free to weigh in. Let me hear your voice.

2 Comments on Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. I was going to comment even before seeing your plea, so consider this one “for real.” I completely agree. I often advise people the same: if you know the rules, you know the right way to break them. Don’t bother to know the rules and you don’t really know what you’re doing. There’s a reason there are certain established forms. Many more people than you or I have attempted to craft literature, and it is good to learn from their example (both what worked and what didn’t). Ignorance should never be an excuse for bad writing. Also, when people starting on their writing journey insist they don’t need the rules, it tends to make one agree with those who say writing isn’t a real job. If you’re not willing to put in the time and disicplene to write, why insist that other people respect your profession? Author Patricia Wrede posted an article on her blog recently titled “The Most Basic of Basics” which echoes this discussion.

  2. Looking forward to the next eight weeks. 🙂

    To get followers, I threatened to hold my breath. It worked. 🙂

    Sorry my hubby’s pic shows up instead of my own. That’s what happens when I leave comments on WordPress. I don’t know how to fix it.

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