Writing Rules: 8 Kurt Vonnegut writing tips

The writing tips series is a journey through the wise words of our favourite writers. Why not learn from those we wish to mimic. I may miss some of their best quotes, or misinterpret them, so do please add them into the comments, and remember, it is up to you whether you learn from rules, have them as jumping off points, or more excitingly, break them!

Lots of writers have lots of rules, and many are very personal. Now personally I feel writing, and more so ‘good writing’, is always going to have a bit of subjectivity to it. However, we all know bad writing when we read it.

I’ve always been a big fan of Vonnegut, but probably more for the man and his humanity than maybe his writing. I have a soft spot for Slaughter House Five, but the rest of his work hasn’t grabbed me. However recently a friend shared a video with me in which was a talk that Vonnegut gave about the shape of stories and why we tell them. Below are some of his tips, but I’d recommend watching the talk if you have a spare 5 mins.

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

I think this is basically ‘entertain them!’ Sometimes we get so caught up with our own story, we forget about the reader or why we read. We want to go on a journey, we want to be moved, we want to laugh and cry and all the emotions in between.

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

Obviously Illinois has the best taste in characters…even if its not a literary character, and it should have been Cameron…but I digress. We need an avatar in a story, they don’t need to be the hero, only someone we can understand.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

In all my reading about how to write, be it a script, book, short story, whatever, everything has to stem from a want and a need. That is what drives us and we like our characters to be the same

“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

We’ve all experienced it, we write a paragraph, we edit it, we think it is great. But with a bit of distance you return to it and it adds nothing to the story.

“Start as close to the end as possible.”

Obviously this was a very personal tip. If you’re creating the new Harry Potter, which obviously we all are, you need to build a world. I think what Vonnegut meant here is that the closer you are to the end of your story, the less running you have to do.

“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.”

King of modern sadism is surely George RR Martin, with his misery-fest that is The Song of Fire and Ice. However if you look at how incredibly popular his work has become, it obviously works!  Adversity breeds affection for characters.

“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.”

Let’s face it, unless you’re Prince, the likelihood of making love to the world and them being satisfied is rare. No one has been universally liked. I think what Kurt is implying here is having an audience in mind. If you want to write the next Twilight, probably best you don’t try and write it like The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“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.”

Obviously this doesn’t work for those of you writing who-dunnits, crime novels, or books with a SHOCKING TWIST.


Let me know what you think of Kurt’s rules. Do you agree with them?

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