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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing a short story

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules for WritingIn his book Bagombo Snuff Box, the famous post-war American novelist Kurt Vonnegut listed these eight rules for writing short 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. 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.

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 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.

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Like most rules, they’re made to be broken (as Vonnegut himself pointed out). But his writing tips may be useful as a starting point, or as a measuring stick with which to judge what you’ve already written.

What are your rules for writing short fiction? Do you disagree with any of Kurt Vonnegut’s advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 506 posts in this blog.

splits his time between the Portlands Oregon and Maine. Generally, he plays music on the West Coast and writes poems on the East — though sometimes that gets mixed up. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, Pacifica Literary Review, Arsenic Lobster, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Contest for Emerging Poets.

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