Despite passing away in 2007, Kurt Vonnegut remains a giant in the American speculative fiction tradition. His writing is both poignant and politically charged, with masterpieces like the anti-war Slaughterhouse-Five and the surreal Cat’s Cradle. There’s a good chance you read some of his work in high school English, and even if you’ve never picked up a Vonnegut story, your favorite authors were likely influenced by him.
In addition to his many novels, Vonnegut was fond of the short story. He published multiple collections, and in his 1999 book Bagombo Snuff Box, he wrote down eight rules for writing short stories. Much has been made of these rules, but how helpful are they? Writers are often unaware of what made readers like their stories in the first place, so Vonnegut’s own success is no guarantee that his advice will be good. This week, we’ll examine each rule and see how useful it is. We’re only looking at the rules themselves, not anyone else’s interpretation of them. Let’s get started.
The First Rule
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
We’re not off to a great start with this rule. It’s too vague. What exactly does it mean for a reader to not feel their time was wasted? No writer sets off to waste their audience’s time, so telling them not to do so isn’t helpful.
If we’re in a very generous mood, this could be interpreted to mean you should cut straight to the chase, rather than wasting time on unnecessary setup or worldbuilding. But even with that kindness, this rule isn’t helpful, as nearly every writer thinks all their setup and worldbuilding is necessary – otherwise they wouldn’t have included it!
So even under the best interpretation, this rule has no actionable advice, and it’s especially unhelpful to new authors who don’t yet know how to differentiate between what’s necessary and what isn’t.
Conclusion: The first rule is decidedly useless.
The Second Rule
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Oh my goodness, where has this rule been all my life? I was worried after that first rule, but item #2 is making a strong comeback. Characters the audience can root for are really important in storytelling, and yet all too often they are in short supply. Many new authors think it’s cool and edgy to have their entire cast made up of jerkass anti-heroes, but really it’s just tiresome.
If a story has no one the audience can root for, then it’s really hard to care what happens. That’s why A Song of Ice and Fire starts with the Stark family. They have admirable traits that automatically make us cheer for them against their enemies. If Martin’s books had started with just another family of power hungry nobles fighting against other families of power hungry nobles, then the conflict wouldn’t have mattered. Who cares which power hungry family wins?
When the consequences are laid out like that, including someone to root for seems obvious, but it’s not so to many authors. One of the most common problems I see in my clients’ stories is a lack of anyone likable, which makes for a boring story indeed.
Conclusion: The second rule is very useful.
The Third Rule
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
This is another classic; you’ve probably heard it before. The second clause is a little iffy, but the first is absolute gold. Every character should want something. That is to say, they should have a motivation. This is especially true in short stories, where space is limited and each character must pull more than their own weight.
If you’ve ever encountered a character who seemed to have no impact on the story, then you’ve read an author who’d have benefited from following this rule. It’s a temptation many of us succumb to from time to time. We make a character with a really cool fighting move or hilarious accent, but they don’t want anything. Because they have no motivation, they don’t move the story forward.
Ideally, authors will take this rule one step further: a character’s wants should conflict with what other characters’ want. If everyone in your political intrigue story just wants what’s good for the country, then the only way to build conflict between them is through misunderstanding. That can work, but it also becomes contrived fast. For a more robust conflict, put the characters’ wants in opposition.
Even if authors don’t take that extra step, knowing what their characters want is critical for good storytelling. It keeps the story on task and makes sure the conflict matters.
Conclusion: The third rule is useful.
The Fourth Rule
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
This one is harder to judge because while it isn’t vague, it is a little confusing. For one thing, it seems to presuppose that sentences can’t both reveal character and advance the action. I’m here to tell you that in fact they can. At the same time, there are other essential functions a sentence can perform, like giving critical exposition. Though maybe that counts as revealing character or advancing the action? It’s hard to tell.
That’s the big problem with this rule; it’s very specific but at the same time not very descriptive. Taken literally, it seems overly restrictive: There are only two kinds of sentences your story can have, and anything else is a waste. If interpreted more broadly, it seems like nearly every sentence would fall under at least one of these definitions, since “character” and “action” are very broad.
I can’t ask Vonnegut what he meant, but my gut says his attempted meaning was not to waste any sentences. With the low word count of a short story, every sentence has to get as much done as possible. If all a sentence does is describe some unimportant flowers, it should be revised until it accomplishes more, but that interpretation is hardly obvious.
Conclusion: The fourth rule is marginally helpful at best.
The Fifth Rule
Start as close to the end as possible.
This rule rates similarly to “show, don’t tell.” Most of the time, it’s good advice, especially for new authors. A huge number of stories start too early, and then have nothing to do but kill time until the plot arrives. This can even happen to blockbuster films. Did you know that the original cut of Star Wars featured several scenes of Luke puttering around his moisture farm, doing nothing of importance? Fortunately we were saved from that by the film’s talented editors.
For inexperienced writers especially, it’s useful to start as close to the end as possible. Move your story’s starting point as far forward in the plot as it will go and still makes sense. That avoids the temptation to include all the backstory and setting description that sounds so cool in your head but will bore most readers.
The weakness of this rule is the same weakness demonstrated by advice like “show, don’t tell”; it misses important nuance. Sometimes you have to tell, because showing all the time isn’t practical. Similarly, some stories benefit from a longer buildup. This is particularly true of horror stories, where a slow escalation of fear can work wonders, but it extends to other genres as well. So long as the story isn’t boring at the beginning, it’s a valid choice to start further back than absolutely necessary in order create more suspense or add context.
Conclusion: The fifth rule is quite useful. Just remember that it comes with a strong caveat.
The Sixth Rule
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.
Such an upbeat fellow, that Vonnegut. The good part of this rule is that it reminds us that stories need conflict. Conflict is what drives the plot and keeps readers turning the page. Some authors have a difficult time with this because they don’t want bad things to happen to their characters. This leads to boring stories all round.
On the other hand, this rule seems to delegitimize the entire genre of light stories. Stories need conflict, but that conflict doesn’t have to be about awful things happening to the protagonist. Sometimes we all just want to read a story where the conflict is over something fluffy like who stole the offices’ supply of fairy dust. These stories can be just as valuable as their darker cousins.
Storytelling rules should help authors avoid mistakes and improve their work. While this rule does have some value, it seems to have been written more out of a taste for dark stories. It restricts writers from telling stories that don’t involve trauma and terror. That’s not surprising considering the dark nature of Vonnegut’s work, but it’s still a problem.
Conclusion: The sixth rule is marginally useful at best.
The Seventh Rule
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.
This rule is just hard to parse. Making love to the world aside, the most obvious interpretation is to not worry about pleasing a wide audience. If that’s what it means, then it’s terrible advice. Storytellers of all stripes want as big an audience as they can get. We want to sell more stories, and perhaps more importantly, we want more people to enjoy our stories.
Don’t get me wrong, authors will need to make choices that limit their audience. Including a happily ever after ending will push away readers who find it sappy, and making your story darker will exclude readers who don’t like more intense material. We’ll all have to decide whether some elements are worth shrinking the audience.
However, there are plenty of choices an author can make that will widen their story’s appeal without a downside. People who care about plot will like your story more if the plot is consistent, and no one is going to put your story down because the plot made too much sense. This is something authors should actively think about, and writing to “please just one person” won’t get them there.
Conclusion: The seventh rule is solidly useless.
The Eighth Rule
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.
Wait, should I be concerned about cockroaches eating the last few pages of my story? Is that a common problem writers face and no one told me? Okay, jokes aside, this is just bad advice. Suspense is really important to many stories, as are twist endings. In fact, the vast majority of stories have some kind of twist at the end, even if it’s just a small one. The hero will spare the villain’s life instead of killing them, or they’ll discover a new power at the last minute.
There’s a word to describe stories where you can predict exactly how it will end well in advance: boring. It’s one thing to predict the ending after a lot of careful analysis and guesswork, but it’s another if the book just tells you everything before the climax even arrives. Following this rule, your readers will never get the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen. For a lot of people, that thrill is their entire reason for reading.
To be completely fair, I have seen authors who withhold vital information in the hopes that it will make a clever reveal. That’s definitely a problem, but the solution is not to throw out the concept of suspense. I can only assume that when Vonnegut penned this rule, he had just read a story where the author didn’t mention that gravity was reversed or something. It’s okay, Kurt, we have other ways of solving that!
Conclusion: The eighth rule will actively make your story worse. It goes beyond useless and into the realm of anti-useful. Just put it down and back away slowly.
In the final count, we have two rules that are really useful, two that are sort of useful, and four that are various shades of not useful. That’s not a fantastic track record, but it’s not surprising either. Successful writers often think they must be doing everything right. After all, they’ve succeeded. In reality, many of them succeeded because of their strengths in one or two areas, and in spite of their weaknesses in others. There’s no question that Vonnegut was a talented and prolific writer, but his ability to understand his success leaves something to be desired.
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