Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting guy. I’ve written about him a couple of times before, and each time I do, I tend to learn something about Vonnegut, something about myself, and above all, something about writing.
Vonnegut was not only a great writer, most well-known for writing the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He was also a veteran of World War II, a former POW, and a unique and deep thinker.
In the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, his 1999 collection of previously published magazine stories, Vonnegut offered eight tips on writing great short stories.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Despite his advice, Vonnegut admitted that the best writers often break these rules. For instance, Flannery O’Conner, who Vonnegut considered to be the greatest short story writer of her generation, often broke these rules. “She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that,” Vonnegut is quoted as saying. Even so, he maintained that it is important to know the rules and learn how to follow them before breaking them.