Creative Writing 101, or, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday: 8 tips for writing fiction from Kurt Vonnegut.

I’ve recently become a fan of reading collections of letters (a form which is disappearing, now that we don’t write letters much anymore), and I read a recommendation somewhere to read Kurt Vonnegut’s letters.

From there, I was drawn to a collection of his short fiction, named–paradoxically–Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.

In the Introduction, Vonnegut provides his rules for “Creative Writing 101“:

  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.

However, Vonnegut notes, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor…She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

I’m a Flannery O’Connor freak, so I was very happy to see that Vonnegut loved her work, too. In fact, in a weird synchronicity, it was my admiration for O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Being, that got me reading letters in the first place.

What do you think of these rules?

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Don’t agree with 4 and 5 . . . So much that is very great in fiction depends on setting and atmosphere, and these elements don’t always advance the action, but can give it great depth and meaning (for example the opening of Bleak House, the fog and mud of London around the Courts of Chancery). ‘Start as close to the end as possible’ is of course open to very broad interpretation. You may have to go pretty far back to get to the ‘possible.’ Number 8 is the ‘in medias res’ requirement for epics–start in the middle of things–without a long, slow build to the action, so long and slow that you get bored before anything happens. Well, yes, but then The Brothers Karamazov takes a good long time to get to ‘the murder’ and the center of the action. There’s a lot of digression and scene setting. But it is a novel I read again every two or three years, and have since I was about 15. Vonnegut is certainly right that you can break every rule but the first one.

  • http://www.popdose.com/ DwDunphy

    I totally agree with number five. My life is nothing but a string of non sequitur events without a clear arrival point. I can appreciate an author who has a clue where it’s going and takes me along. Any poor sap can get lost on their own — they don’t need a book to show them that.

  • mrs_helm

    I don’t think it is necessary to “be a sadist” to reveal someone’s character. Plenty of people’s character is revealed in the little things they do (or don’t do) in daily life and interactions. That said, if the “awful things” are the story – if their ability to keep their character, or their growth or change, in the face of these things…if that is the story, then this makes sense.

    Number 8 – giving your readers all the information. I sort of agree, but I don’t want the story to be so transparent that I could write the ending myself…why finish the book then? I would rather have the information be there, but in a sort of way that at the end I think “wow, of course he did…it makes total sense, but I never would have thought of that”. Then when I re-read it, I pick up on the things I missed. (My husband and I agree that our favorite movies are ones where watching them a second or third time, you see things you missed, but that add meaning or understanding or humor. Like “Signs”.)

    • cruella

      I totally agree on rule no 8!

      • cruella

        That is, with your view on it:-)

    • Dina Schlie Preuss

      I agree with you about #8. I never enjoy any story or movie if the ending is “predictable”. If I can write the story myself then it is a predictable story, so why on earth even bother reading it? I want to be transcended into a place I’ve never been and surprised that what I thought would happen did not. That is a satisfying story.

  • Miss Richards

    You guys are arguing with Kurt Vonnegut! Trust me. He knows more than you do because he’s been more successful than you’ve been. I love all his rules so much that I will print the list and paste it in my journal. Stop arguing with a master and get back to writing!

    • cruella

      You’re joking, right?

  • Megan Gordon

    I do love Kurt – wholeheartedly. And as with any rules, it’s good to know them, know them well, and then break them with purpose. :)

  • Andrea Waltz

    I LOVE these rules, and thankful I follow most ;)

  • KSousa

    I am fascinated by his writing as well! My favorite quote ” One of the wonderful things about modern times is that if you die horribly on television you will not have died in vain – you will have entertained us”. Not the “happiest” of quotes ( sorry) but as someone who worked in news I love this one.
    Thanks for these rules – there are some good ones here.

  • Malori Saline

    I really enjoyed reading these rules.

  • Jessica

    Some really great reminders – important to not waste the time of the people you mean to reach!

  • francis rossi

    read my memoir In the Short Grass penned Haskell Robinson and compare to Kurt’s list.

  • Karen

    Oh thank you Gretchen! I’m printing them and forwarding them to my writer friends. Whether they are right or wrong they are mostly encouragement to engage and experience the excitement of writing. I so admire Flannery too.

  • Sandy

    Love the post. Where can I find Vonnegut and O’Connors’ collections of letter? At a local library? Online? I think I might like to read them.

  • PS

    I have taken lots of writing classes, and “rules”(or tips) are good. Keeping the ideas alive with story development can be the hardest thing a writer can face. And nobody has to agree with the rules or follow the rules. These were Vonnegut’s rules that helped him and gave his stories substance.

  • Allison

    If you like reading letters, I think you’ll really like the book:

    “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” – give it a try!

    • Mary Lou Green

      I loved this book, Allison. Glad you brought it up…I’ll read it again since it’s been awhile.

    • Angela

      I too loved this book! As soon as I finished reading it, I read the first half again. A year later I listened to the audio cd and am so glad I did. It was wonderful hearing the voices of the characters come to life. I wish I could find another book that moved me as much as this one did, while still keeping a light-hearted tone to the writing.

  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt Hardin

    Vonnegut’s zaniness certainly didn’t take away from the depth of his work. Finding his work at an early age, he opened my mind to many possibilities of the universe while pointing out the absurdities of humanity. You can see my portrait where I paid tribute to the author and say Sweet Dreams, Mr. Vonnegut at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-birthday-mr-vonnegut.html

    • http://zautos.com/ Paul Erna

      I really think Bobby brown is just as zany.

      Bobby Brown Serves Nine Hours in Jail for Third DUI

      While California is known for having some of the toughest DUI laws in the nation, it seems Bobby Brown has been let off easy. He was released Wednesday after serving nine hours of his 55-day jail sentence for driving under the influence. http://zautos.com/bobby-brown-serves-nine-hours-in-jail-for-third-dui/

      What a madcap

  • Jeanne

    I’m not much of a believer in rules when it comes to creative pursuits. I’ve found that with anything artistic, following rules creates stilted results and blocks the flow of what is original and true. I’m working on a website, and am breaking all the rules, even the most basic like having the navigation in the same style and place on every page. Of course, mine is a personal page, not trying to sell anything or promote anything (except my own weird self), so it’s a blast. If my viewers are a little disoriented while exploring my page, so much the better ;-)

  • cruella

    I think that rule no 8 is rubbish since I simply LOVE carefully constructed storytelling that makes you want to read the book straight over again in a new light when you’ve just finished it:-)

  • http://www.Furries-happyclub.com/ The Furries & The Happy Club

    When I was younger I used to read a lot of critically acclaimed books and tick off titles from the “must read” lists by professors, trying to be an intellectual.

    But I didn’t really enjoy them.

    Now, I mostly read fiction that I truly enjoy, just for the pleasure of it. For me that means:

    A story that interests me and/or a character/-s and/or an environment/setting.
    If none of those things are present – I stop reading.

    If all are present (which they ought to be if the writer has followed Mr Vonneguts rules) –

    IT’S ALL PLEASURE!

  • happinesssavouredhot

    Interesting advice! Will add it to the endless list I’ve been putting together. LOL

  • Mary Lou Green

    I really like #2 because it creates hope.

  • Dina Schlie Preuss

    Gretchen I love tip number 6! I’m currently writing a novel with a character whose plight is a difficult one to bare. Now I see I need to throw everything at her I can and see what she’s made of so my readers don’t get bored with her. Thanks for this post!

  • http://www.eduardoloria.com/ Eduardo Loria

    Loved these! Brainpickings has a great selection of writing advice and I find myself too often reading the advice rather than writing :) I especially liked the writing for one person, the less I worry about what an “audience” would think the more real I feel my writing getting.

  • Wisteria

    You should write a blog with helpful jump starts for budding writers. U r very inspirational. And writing is what makes me happy.

  • haskell

    haskell Robinson’s In the Short Grass is a must read and I’m sure Kurt would agree

  • Sniggdha Jauhari

    oh God! just don’t follow any rule. Just write from your heart.

    • Alan Bean

      I disagree. To the beginning writer, it is a good thing to follow some set rules. These “rules” are more like guidelines than laws. They can be broken w, but taking that risk often means severe consequence if not executed properly. Just “writing from the heart” doesn’t necessarily work for fiction. However, don’t get me wrong, it works perfectly well with poetry.

      Sincerely,
      a fellow writer.

  • http://www.hellobrio.com/ Jennifer Coyle

    Oh my goodness. Kurt Vonnegut has come up in my life so often in the past week, and his books are at the top of my to-read list. Whlie I haven’t read any Vonnegut yet, this set of tips seals the deal. These rules are fantastic and intriguing, and I’m even more pumped to read his stuff.