American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007), was a warm and witty tour guide of alternate universes. Part science-fiction, satire, and comedy, his stories encourage readers to laugh at the meaninglessness of an earthling’s life, while urging them to use this very pessimism to supplement and nurture a kinder and gentler heart.
In the 50 years of his literary career, Vonnegut published fourteen fiction novels, three short-story collections, five non-fiction works, and five plays. The most notable of his works include the novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. What makes his stories unique are his unconventional protagonists. They force us to contemplate on the true meaning of our existence, thus capturing the hearts of readers, especially younger ones who are trying to make sense of their roles on planet Earth.
Today, we share with you his advice on the basics of writing a short story (the video below is an audio of Vonnegut reciting these tips). They are a treat to novice and professional writers alike. Tinged with his good-humor, these eight tips prove again and again that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was, and will continue to be, one of America’s most well-loved storytellers.
- 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.
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.
(These tips were originally a preface to Vonnegut’s
short-story collection Bagombo Snuff Box.)