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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Eight rules for writing fiction

Kurt Vonnegut‘s rules:

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 heck 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.

Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999). This was suggested by a post on Books, Words & Writing.

14 Responses to “Eight rules for writing fiction”

  1. Brian Hadd says:

    Some of those are redundant, which is not to say that there isn’t enough sense in them to redundant them out to ten rules. Tell the truth seems to be what it boils down to.

    jb says: Hi Brian. Are you a man with answers?

  2. Jerry Prager says:

    I think I took number 5 to heart a long time ago. Maybe I read this way back when my writer’s brain was forming. Because for awhile I’d write a first draft, then I’d rewrite it starting where it ended, now I just try to avoid the first pre-draft.

    jb says: I tend to write whatever comes to mind but usually find that I can lose the first chapter, at least, and often more. It’s important for a writer to know what leads up to the beginning of a narrative, but often not necessary at all for a reader.

  3. Brendan Frost says:

    Very nice. I think the best advice i’ve heard, wherever it came from, is “do what works for you”… but that’s a given, and so many different writers have lists or specific advice on what does in fact work in general.

    That’s the main reason I find it so difficult, so far, to settle on a voice, method, or style which suffices for now, and still be able to improve it. I can’t even find one which suffices for now… Anyway, thanks for this one.

    jb says: You could simplify it by forgetting method and style for a while. When you find the voice the rest will follow.

  4. Fred Charles says:

    I love Vonnegut’s work. I especially agree with rule number 6. You have to heap the misfortune on your characters! Conflict drives the story.

    jb says: Hi Fred. This one has never been straight forward for me. I believe that character is destiny, i.e. that a certain character draws a certain kind of destiny. Many plot-driven novels don’t work for me because the characters are made to deal with events for which they are not equipped. This is, perhaps, material for a future post.

  5. seleucus says:

    Vonnegut, always awesome!

  6. […] de él. Luego lo comenté con Sergi Puertas y me hizo llegar otra lista igualmente delirante: Ocho reglas para escribir ficción. La que más me gusta es la […]

  7. Hi,

    I liked the fourth point best. That makes for interesting writing.

  8. James Bent says:

    I think there should be a rule 9:

    if you find a good reason to break any of the rules, then do it.

    jb says: Hi James. I can think of lots of reasons for that one.

  9. Nicole says:

    These were excellent and very helpful to a new writer. I have one request – can you describe number 5 to me in a bit more detail? Do you mean, simply, start with how the story will end and go from there? Thank you very much, in advance 🙂 -Nik G. (One of those “new writers” I mentioned!)

    jb says: Hi Nicole. I’ll leave your question for someone else to answer.

  10. […] And if you’re looking for even more rules, check out Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing fiction. […]

  11. I really enjoyed these rules. I’ve recently read some novelists who seem to have forgotten about Rule #2, and it takes a lot of pleasure out of reading for me. Reading a whole book without any sympathetic characters is like being stuck at an interminable party without anyone I want to talk to (or like watching The Sopranos on TV, frankly).

  12. john baker says:

    Yeah, it’s great to come across a fictional character you can feel for, someone you understand; and not necessarily because he or she is like you, but simply because they carry a recognizable humanity.

  13. Tracey says:

    I love it! I really love what you have to say about how to write fiction because often you hear the opposite. You hear drop little hints to build foreshadowing, etc. I love how you say let the reader be able to finsih the story themselves.

    Great tips!

  14. […] he rest in peace) said it, it’s good advice. These rules came to me by way of, John Baker’s Blog, and Books, Words and […]