Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

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

I love the simplicity Vonnegut uses when asserting his rules, but sometimes I wonder if we need a little extra, especially for beginning writers. At first, this rule just makes perfect sense, but if we don’t spend the time contemplating the implications of it, we cheat ourselves and our readers. This rule is one of his most profound.

We understand that a story consists of a character struggling to achieve something, and an obstacle that stands in his or her way. We know that the action of the story is the forward movement to the accomplishment of the goal. We also know that we need to reveal who our character is, and why they’re so bent on accomplishing this goal. So we come up with an idea, find a character to fit the plot, and say “go.”

It’s a good starting point. But if you end here, you’ve cheated yourself, your reader, and your character.

How do you reveal character? There’s about 1300 blog posts that you can consult, and about as many published books that touch on the subject. But many of them parrot the same few things: Know their name, their history, and what they look like.

Again, a good starting point. But this is not the end. How does their history change their perception of the world around them? What details do they notice? Why are these details significant to them? How do these details affect them?

Here’s an exercise in character development that skirts the normal “your character has a scar…” set-up.

Describe the setting. Do it in such a way that the setting affects your character in some profound way. Resist the urge to throw a dead body in the room. Instead, let them be alone, and put them someplace that has some emotional connection for them. You don’t even need to say specifically what it is. Just let it be clear from the images they record in the narrative and the tone in which they describe them.

Here’s another exercise in character development: Put your character in action. They don’t need to be chasing down a bad guy, or even running from one. They could be locked in a killer tennis match, or maybe swimming from a boat to the shore to see their Savior. Maybe the stakes are higher and they’re smack in the middle of a war. Perhaps they’re dueling for the honor of their family—swords or pistols. Maybe they’re a thief and they’re sneaking into a heavily guarded area. Whatever it is, remember that they’re physically doing it.

For extra points, combine elements of the first exercise in the second.

Now, onward and upward for your characters. Crack the whip, and get them going.

2 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction”

  • I have to say it makes me very nervous to read about rules. When I stop to think about what I’m doing, I tend to get blocked. If I let things flow naturally–the setting, the character development, the plot–then I’ve found that some of this happens naturally. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have to go back and strengthen, flesh out, layer, etc. Rules set my teeth on edge–but believe it or not, I’m a rule follower!

  • Another fine comment. You’re right about rules inspiring “paralysis by analysis.” I think you’re handling it the right way, the way I’d encourage any writer to approach the subject: Write first. Worry later. Once the first draft is done, then the work begins. These are more guidelines than rules, really, but they can help inform our writing, especially in context of revisions. Maybe that’s why I’m covering these now–I’m knee deep in a pretty major overhaul (coming off the heels of another edit). Once I start back in on first-draft writing I’ll focus on something else. For now, remembering these “rules” (guidelines, whatever) is quite helpful to me. 🙂

    Remember–rebels always follow the rules. 🙂

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