Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing fiction: rule number 4

For those of us coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s and seeking a voice to articulate the absurdities we were seeing and experiencing, Kurt Vonnegut was a God-send.

Vonnegut (1922-2007), a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing as a prisoner of war, wrote in a light, delicate prose that satirized the pompous pronouncements that were being bandied about to explain — or obscure — the lack of logic that we were tempted to accept. In his 14 novels, including Slaughterhouse-5 and Cat’s Cradle, and numerous plays and short stories, he cut through the fog and allowed us to see more clearly.

Vonnegut is still worth reading, and if you haven’t had a taste of him, you should.

Just as Elmore Leonard had his rules for writing in general, Vonnegut had his rules of writing, but these applied to fiction more than non-fiction. They are listed below.

I was reminded of these rules after reading a disappointing novel that violated rule number 4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. The novel had a good storyline, but early on it was weighted down by too much explanation and not enough plot advancement. The author is well-respected and well-reviewed, but in this instance he didn’t have enough faith in his plot or his audience to weave the explanations into the action.

It occurred to me that Vonnegut’s rules are good ones to have in mind even if you aren’t writing fiction, just trying to evaluate what you are reading. So here they are:

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.

And so it goes.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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