Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight rules for writing fiction

In a recent meeting of our glorious critique group, Drafthouse, Sanford and Joe got to talking about the wonders of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. They cited one after another after another story or story element that I simply didn’t realize that was being done at the time he worked. Crazy shit but crazy shit that obviously worked.

It seemed, growing up, every time I had heard Vonnegut’s name it was being mentioned by in stuffy terms by pretentious people. But to hear Sanford and Joe go on about him, it was like hearing my own deep praise for artists like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood or Alison Krauss’s Jerry Douglas. I mourned my not having read literally any of Vonnegut’s works and decided right then that I would remedy the situation.

As of this writing I still haven’t read my first Vonnegut, not having reached to the end of my current read in progress, but I’ve had time to poke around about Vonnegut’s writing approach. This morning, I came across this short list of his Eight Rules for Writing Fiction on troubling.info, just one of their long list of people listed on their slightly disturbing page, People.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now 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.
  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.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck 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.

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

1-4 run parallel with about every other writing how-to I’ve read.

  • Don’t betray the reader’s trust.
  • Make characters sympathetic.
  • Drive characters’ action with desire.
  • Making every sentence necessary — for Poe and his preference for shorter work, it was every word.

As are 6-8, though I found fresh Vonnegut’s belief that a writer strive to please just one person, especially his choice of a pneumonia analogy.

But it was 5 that I hadn’t run across before. I had heard similar, beginning-centric advice as:

  • Start at the first interesting moment.
  • Start in the midst of conflict.
  • Start with a hook.
  • Start somewhere interesting and go back later and fill in back story.

But I had never heard a writing tip that measured from the end, the story’s resolution. The line’s uniqueness stopped me. It got me thinking. I started to mentally test my own stories to see if I had begin them at the correct point according to Vonnegut and in most cases the answer was “no” or “close.” There were too few yeses. And the shocking was that the small handful of stories that did pass Vonnegut’s test happened to be my stronger stories.

I considered the story that I was — and am, truth be told — working on, a short story about a woman whose obsession with creating the perfect culinary dish for an upcoming national competition leads her to insist on human meat as her protein. At the time I had read the article, the story began with her slow progression toward obsession, nowhere close enough to the end. By applying Vonnegut’s advice, the story needed to begin with her already having succumbed to her demons.

This may sound like the beginning-centric advice above but it’s subtly different. Instead of concerning myself with the right opening line or the right conflict to begin with, I’m looking at the resolution and moving backwards to the very last conflict that I can’t under any circumstances omit and still have the story understandable.

So out was her guilt that she’d put her family through who-cares-what. Out was leading with the inciting incident. Instead, I rearranged the story to begin with the disturbing moment she obtains the key ingredient, the conflict after which all other events are closing out the story. I found that flashing back to earlier conflicts, those that forced the character to the main conflict itself.

The difference was marked. Now I can’t wait to put this story to bed and possibly revisit and rearrange the events in one or two of my recent favorites.

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