Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction (condensed)

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Excite strangers.
Reveal all quickly.
Start near end.
At least one character to root for.
Characters must want something, anything.
Attack them to show what they’re made of.
Every sentence, reveal character or advance plot.
Write to one.

— Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999).

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8 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction (condensed)”

  1. I about fell out of my chair that you even got a blog post up! Thanks for the condensed and very concise reminders. Hope you are well.

  2. Ha. I agree with Tina.
    :)
    You got us all addicted to your blog and then . . . you’re gone. But we keep coming back!
    I feel like I always have more to learn when it comes to writing. I saw this just yesterday on thesaurus.com: Protagonist is Greek for ‘first (important) actor’ or ‘first struggler’ and by extension is used for a person who drives the action in a situation or is the main character in a literary work.
    Like your concise, but powerful list, the thesaurus definition gave me something to think about.
    My main character is my first struggler, so in other words, everyone else is in a heap of trouble too.
    Glad to see your post, Mick!

  3. “Every sentence, reveal character or advance plot.”
    Oh wow. I mean, seriously a big wow on that one. That’s going to be one of those sentences that never, ever leaves my brain.
    “Write to one.”
    I am so glad it was followed by this. I can write to one, I do write to one and it is the sugar that makes the writing every sentence thing go down much, much easier.

  4. I think there’s a reason “excite strangers” is first on the list. If you don’t do that, nothing else really matters. For all the time we spend talking about all the details of craft — dialogue, characters, structure, etc. — the most common reason I usually say “no” to a manuscript is that it fails to excite me. Vonnegut’s got it goin’ on here.

  5. I think some of the rules lose something in their condensed form. “Start near end,” for example, has a different meaning than “Start as close to the end as possible.” If we were to start near the end of a whodunit, we would start at the point right before the murderer is revealed. If we start as close to the end as possible, we would probably conclude that the place to start is right before the body is found. “Attack them” doesn’t carry the weight that “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.” does. By Vonnegut’s thinking, we shouldn’t give our characters a break.
    I think Vonnegut’s rules are mostly good advice. Some people disagree with his rule number eight “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.” There is a good argument for a slow reveal from time to time and readers cannot absorb information as quickly as we might like, but when a reader can see the same story world that the author sees it is much easier to tell the story.

  6. Good points, Timothy. Thanks for the comment.
    Such short-cutting does lead to inaccuracy, as you point out, but in general, Vonnegut’s bigger point seemed to be that as writers, we’re too wasteful of words. But still, good to always compare against the original.

  7. These are the best eight rules on fiction. And this is how Vonnegut writes, sparse and lean, and every sentence is packed with so, so much wisdom. We all have so much learn from him. God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut. So it goes.

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