Kurt Vonnegut's Rules of Writing

Rest in peace, Mr. Vonnegut.

As related in the prologue to one of his short-story collections, here are Mr. Vonnegut's rules of writing:

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.

There are far too many stories I have read that violate the hell out of No. 2. I cannot bring myself to watch THE SHIELD or RESCUE ME or other shows that seem to depend entirely on our loathing for the central characters. If I want to watch someone motivated solely by selfishness act like an asshole and hurt the people he allegedly cares about... Well, there are places I can look, let's just say that.

Seriously, this is one of the best lists I've ever seen. Stories that meander about being pretty (No. 4), characters that are consumed with languor and nothingness (No. 3) and spend the first nine chapters "setting the scene" (No. 5) annoy the hell out of me, but I've never seen them so properly castigated.

I personally am fondest of No. 6. It's a fundamental basis of my work that people really only appreciate something once they've lost it, that in grief, tragedy and crisis we see people for who they truly are. Mr. Vonnegut, of course, said it better.

I struggle with No. 8 myself. But then, suspense should come naturally, right? Something that comes to the reader because the story is Just That Good. As his were.

Mr. Vonnegut, I hope you are sitting back on a chaise lounge with a martini and sharing a pack of Pall Malls with Hunter S. Thompson and Arthur Miller. We won't see your like again soon.


  1. I love the rules. I'm guilty of number 2, every now and then. My characters sometimes tend to be rotters.

    And 4 tends to get me as well. Tangents are not my friend.

    6 and 7 are no problem.

    But 8... well, I despise large text dumps. I think it's a style thing.

    But ah, Mr. Vonnegut, of EPIAC and Welcome to the monkey house and my favorite, Harrison Bergeron--send dispatches from the other side.


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