Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, listed eight rules for writing a short story.  While I would probably adopt a different set of eight rules, I think Vonnegut’s rules are quite interesting:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

For me, the important parts of this rule are: “total stranger” and “time wasted”.  One never knows who will decide to read a book that one has written, and it’s important that whoever decides to read it feels that it is time well spent.  This suggests that the onknown reader got something out of the story: enjoyment, new knowledge, new ideas . . .

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

This is essential!

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

A character with no desires is not human and therefore not very attractive or interesting.

4. Start as close to the end as possible.

For a short story, this certainly makes sense.  I’m not sure this holds true for a novel.  One example that springs to mind is Emily Bronté’s Wuthering Heights in which the characters are young children at the beginning.  The Russian novelist, Tolstoy, didn’t believe in this, nor did Sholokov.  However, the rule, it seems to me, is useful in that it encourages one not to included unnecessary material.

5. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.

It depends, I think, on what one means by “advance the action”.  A short story, by its very nature has to be tightly told.  In a novel, there is more latitude for scene- and context-setting.  I would argue that setting the scene and establishing the context are important in advancing the action, so long as they hold the reader’s interest.

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.

I’m not sure one has to be a Sadist, but it certainly shows the reader what a character is made of when tragedy strikes.  I good example is the principal character Henry in Sable Shadow and The Presence.

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.

I sense a slight conflict between this rule and rule number 1.  The one person for whom we write is a total stranger?  For me, the second sentence in this rule makes sense: one has to have focus in one’s writing, otherwise, it pleases no one.

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 think this applies to a short story more than to a novel, but I’m not sure that Hemingway would have agreed with this.  His short stories often have surprising endings.

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