Jungla - Short, authentic book reviews

Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories

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In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story. I’m recycling them here because I’ve been told it’s “NaNoWriMo”, whatever that is.

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

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

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

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4) Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.

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5) Start as close to the end as possible.

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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.

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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.

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And finally:

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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What a bleak picture Vonnegut paints of reading. It’s not all sadism, pneumonia and cockroaches – sometimes it’s tea, chocolate and comfy chairs.

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Oh, he also said: “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

Anyway, if you are taking part in “NaNoWriMo”, remind yourself of the wise words of Vonnegut, and never, ever forget that every word you jot down is for a reader, and not for your own sense of worth. Your job is to entertain. If you’re producing rubbish work, never let anyone see it – no matter how much effort you put in.

Check out the article over at The Salon for an argument on why NaNoWriMo is an exercise in self-indulgence.

And if that’s not put you off, check out my article on how the money’s about to drain out of the book industry once piracy takes off.

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2 Responses to “Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories”

  1. Thomas says:

    I’m really getting in to some of his books (at the moment, ‘Salem’s Lot), and I want to buy more. What were your favorite and least favorite Stephen King books?

  2. Catherine says:

    Wow! Great eight points. I’m sorry I totally side with Kurt. Writing is no excuse for chocolate and comfy chairs! ciao cat

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