Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction

I found this through 9rules, and I thought I’ll share it here.

Eight rules for writing fiction:

  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. Now 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.

– Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

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Category: Writing
  • http://rebirthnovel.blogspot.com Scott McKenzie

    Great post, Eli. It’s especially true for online writers, who may only have one chapter or even one sentence to allow them to hook their readers. I can’t remember where I read it, but one thing that I always keep in mind is “keep the reader turning the pages”. In the blog world, this can translate to “don’t give the reader an excuse to stop scrolling down the page.”

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Thanks, Scott. Kurt was a great author, and it was a real loss to us all when he passed on.

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  • http://www.billhilton.biz/blog Bill Hilton

    Hey Eli – thanks for the comment. It got published for all of about two hours, then vanished. I spent a lot of yesterday migrating from Blogger to WordPress, and although my posts have moved just fine all the comments have disappeared up the server’s fundament.

    ^^^Hey, look at that – it does trackbacks automatically! Getting Blogger to trackback was like trying to get a cat to have a bath.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Ahh. That must’ve been a real headache, Bill. Glad to see the blog looking fantastic!

  • http://thesocalledme.net Jenny

    Great tips. I’ll have to remember these when I finally get my novel started.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Glad you liked it, Jenny.

  • Kaitlyn Jeronye

    Thanks for posting this. As an aspiring writer, these tips have helped quite a bit…even my fiction writing professor was pleased with these simple, yet useful tips when I showed them to him.

    P.S.~They also work quite well for roleplay games that I write plots for now and then. ^.^

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    You can write roleplay games?! Wow.

  • Kaitlyn Jeronye

    It’s a play-by-post game. Basically like doing a back and forth story roleplay in Yahoo messenger, except on a larger level.

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  • http://www.akmandamagazine.com/ rizki akmanda

    great tips

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Kaitlyn: that’s new to me: roleplaying games in Yahoo messenger.

    @Rizki: Glad you enjoyed it.

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  • http://www.rowdy.com nascar

    Great information. I love Vonnegut.

  • http://www.kwikmed.com/prodinfo.asp?p=chantix Chantix

    Great advice! Being a sadist is probably the best advice for a writer. People love reading about sadness, loss, and feelings of despair since they are all a part of life. No matter how many people may not admit it, but people do enjoy reading about sadness.

  • http://writerdad.com Writer Dad

    Yeah, this list is a classic. My favorite, by far, is “start as close to the end as possible.”

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Glad you enjoyed it, Writer Dad.

  • Masonspace

    You Didn’t finish it, afterwords it reads

    “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.”

  • Kellyg

    Usually, I hate these types of rules that a writer must follow. But this list caught my attention, and I’m glad I read it. Nice job!

  • http://ebookguru.org Clarice-EbookGuru

    I’m usually against rules for writers, but with this particular set I think you hit the nail on the head. Great Job!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Thank you, all.

    PS: @Masonspace: serious? But then again that last rule is common sense: Picasso learnt the rulebook inside out before he started breaking every one of them.

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  • Lolita

    This is actually for Short Stories, specifically, but I suppose that they all have relevance to some degree on fiction writing in general.

  • http://petleopard.com Viqi French

    Good advice. ;-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Lolita: really?!

    @Viqi: Oh yes indeed. He is Vonnegut, after all.

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  • http://darkenedjade.blogspot.com Darkened Jade

    Good advice (though being Australian I don’t think that I want people to ‘root’ for my character – I think I want them to be cheering for them, or something with less explicit connotations). I do kind of disagree with number 8 though, not so much as a writer, but as a reader. Author’s who give everything away bore me. I want there to be a logical surprise at the end, it does have to be logical though.

    Thanks for the informaiton. Really helpful.

  • Chase

    I comepletely disagree with the last one. Mystery is important and withholding information is entertaining to the reader.

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  • Wendi Maroon

    This is the first time I’ve read rule 6 “Be a Sadist”. I actually find that idea rather profound, a provocative idea that I immediately ‘felt’ the rightness of. Those two sentences in that rule taught me something that has never occurred to me before but I believe I will never forget. With what I’m writing right now, half a dozen ideas popped into my head immediately. After I finish this comment, I am going to print out these rules, put them on my corkboard at my writing desk and start writing, even though Saturdays are usually the days I don’t write. When a simple two sentences, or a simple idea, motivates me like that, I know I’ve come to the right place.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’m glad to hear that, Wendy. I wish you the best of luck.

  • W.Mason

    It’s actually 8 rules for writing a SHORT story. Maybe they should be applied to the Wheel of Time series, though.

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  • Betty

    I have just started taking a creative writing course, and i like these tips for writing fiction.

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  • Keskiyo

    You can give your reader all the information they need to figure out a story (or even a novel) way before you make the reveal and still keep the mistery. You just have to make it look as trivial as you can or introduce something much more exciting to make it look dull. Most readers won’t notice and even the most dedicated readers will pass one or two things. Making a reader say “it was there all along! How could I have missed it?” is very satisfying.

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  • http://www.francinecraft.com Francine Craft

    Gorgeous tips, as I expected.  If we could really incorporate them all in our fiction, we’d all be winners.  Thanks Kurt!

  • Brimshack

    Always happy to see what wisdom this man left behind.

  • George

    I disagree with #8. If you’re writing a mystery, then revealing everything right away would completely ruin it. Suspense is the best part! You want to give enough information that the reader knows what the mystery is, but then you keep them in the dark, slowly dropping clues as the story progresses. Enough information that they COULD figure it out, but not enough that they automatically will. Only at the very end should things start to come together.

    Other than that, though, great list.

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  • Gordon

     Not necessarially, Colombo for example would set up a mystery that the audience was in on from the beginning, but the main character wasn’t.  The fun was in seeing how Colombo will unravel the mystery and arrive at the solution that we know already.

  • http://www.virgil.weebly.com/ VM

    to me this #8 means that if you write a story that relies on suspense, that’ll be a story you can read once, and if you know the ending the story becomes uninteresting. but if you don’t rely on withholding information from your audience the story can be enjoyed, in the absence of suspense, countless times. 
    a story can still be rich and  exciting. the films I love and watch again and again usually don’t rely much on mystery but rather find other ways to keep the story alive. for ex. even if I know Dennis is going to steal the embryos and put the lifes of everyone in danger, that’s not a huge mystery that would spoil the rest of Jurassic Park for me.

  • triplesec_ice

    and notice that he keeps thing behind in at least one novel (I’ll not spoil by saying which of his hugely famous ones it is), so it’s a nuanced rule, except for beginners, who probably overuse suspense to the detriment of the story and character, as you so nicely suggest.

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  • Ashleigh0100

    Great advice. Point 7 is one I find myself forgetting when the story-line isn’t flowing as well as it should.

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