Vonnegut´s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story

I stumbled across a blog where a girl (so sorry about that, Alex ;) ) was talking about these eight rules of writing fiction, and I shamelessly googled the rules for my own thoughts. They were written by a Kurt Vonnegut who, according to wikipedia, wrote them in self-assessment purposes. He added that great writers tend to break theses rules. So… if you don´t follow them it might mean you´re just a brilliant writer… eh? *Wink*
Anyway, here´s my take on them…

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    This seems easy enough, until you stop to consider what it actually means. Can you ever be sure your writing is good enough to be a fair way to spend another persons time? Not really. Not even close.
    All we can ever do is make sure what we put out there is the very best we can give. Right?
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    Oh goody, here´s a fun part. Who doesn´t love writing a likable hero? Or… wait. The unlikables are fun to write too. The difficult ones you seem to care about despite all their flaws and mistakes. The real thing isn´t writing a likable character or characters, it´s about writing lovable ones. They can be sweet, nasty, mean, saintly, tough, weak… Think of the people you root for in life and ask yourself why. For me it´s this, for you it´s that… Just make sure you write people, not a perfect picture. We don´t need the perfect picture to improve or find its way or get through tough times, it´s already perfect.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    Again, the perfect picture. If the character doesn´t need anything, we have no reason to follow his or her story. Do we really care to find out just how long that person is going to stay perfectly happy and satisfied? Of course we need wants. We need the story to be going somewhere, taking us somewhere… even if it´s only to the table to pick up a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
    I like this one. It pushes us to really think about what we´re writing. it makes us get rid of the pointless stuffing that pours onto the page when we get carried away or simply have nothing more to say and need to finish something.
    However, some of those pointless things serve a different purpose. For me, it´s about a bit of breathing space. You know? A little light pause between scenes or actions  or even paragraphs to digest what I´ve been reading. So maybe not follow this rule to the letter? ;)
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    Brilliant. I´ve never heard it put like that, but I think it´s brilliant. Don´t get lost in backstory and leading-up-to´s, start where the story really begins.
  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.
    This one made me think of an article by one Marc Pieniazek. 
    The rule pretty much says it: we want the reader to know what makes our characters tick. How they face danger and difficulties- if they face them. If they run and hide or fight. Our true colours are most visible when we´re under pressure and faced with tough choices, yes? 
  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.
    See, this one makes it simple for us. The whole ‘not wasting a stranger´s time’ only needs to apply to one person ;) In reality, if we want to follow this rule, that one person should be you. If we don´t count you, it should be someone whose opinion you appreciate and value. Someone you trust.
    And, if we don´t take the rule quite as literally, write in a consistant direction. Don´t try to fit everything  into a single story. You may love lasagna and you may love roast beef, but I somehow doubt you´d throw it on the same plate. It not only ruines the taste, it ruins the mood.
  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.
    I like it. It´s basically telling you to help your readers care. Help them get so lost in your story they don´t want to put the book down (or browse away from the page). Creating suspense is in my opinion a good thing, but it´s a difficult thing to do well. Maybe what the great writers have in common, amongst other things of course, is the skill to create just the right amount of mystery and suspense to keep us on our toes.
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3 thoughts on “Vonnegut´s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story

  1. HAHA I’m a girl but hey that happens.

    Glad you enjoyed those rules. I’m finding that when I write now I think about those 8 rules.

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