Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

If you’re enjoying Aaron’s guest posts, check out his Workshop Wednesdays on his blog, Forging Fiction. You can submit or just observe. He will put submitted pages up anonymously, give a few pieces of constructive criticism, and encourage his followers to do so as well. What you get is unfiltered constructive feedback (closely monitored by Aaron). Check it out!

BTW, New Orleans is a great city – great people, great food – glad to be home in L.A. though.

By adgansky

Vonnegut as a kid

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. –Kurt Vonnegut

I love the simplicity Vonnegut uses when asserting his rules, but sometimes I wonder if we need a little extra, especially for beginning writers. At first, this rule just makes perfect sense, but if we don’t spend the time contemplating the implications of it, we cheat ourselves and our readers. This rule is one of his most profound.

We understand that a story consists of a character struggling to achieve something, and an obstacle that stands in his or her way. We know that the action of the story is the forward movement to the accomplishment of the goal. We also know that we need to reveal who our character is, and why they’re so bent on accomplishing this goal. So we come up with an idea, find a character to fit the plot, and say “go.”

It’s a good starting point. But if you end here, you’ve cheated yourself, your reader, and your character.

How do you reveal character? There’s about 1300 blog posts that you can consult, and about as many published books that touch on the subject. But many of them parrot the same few things: Know their name, their history, and what they look like.

Again, a good starting point. But this is not the end. How does their history change their perception of the world around them? What details do they notice? Why are these details significant to them? How do these details affect them?

Here’s an exercise in character development that skirts the normal “your character has a scar…” set-up.

Describe the setting. Do it in such a way that the setting affects your character in some profound way. Resist the urge to throw a dead body in the room. Instead, let them be alone, and put them someplace that has some emotional connection for them. You don’t even need to say specifically what it is. Just let it be clear from the images they record in the narrative and the tone in which they describe them.

Here’s another exercise in character development: Put your character in action. They don’t need to be chasing down a bad guy, or even running from one. They could be locked in a killer tennis match, or maybe swimming from a boat to the shore to see their Savior. Maybe the stakes are higher and they’re smack in the middle of a war. Perhaps they’re dueling for the honor of their family—swords or pistols. Maybe they’re a thief and they’re sneaking into a heavily guarded area. Whatever it is, remember that they’re physically doing it.

For extra points, combine elements of the first exercise in the second.

Now, onward and upward for your characters. Crack the whip, and get them going.

Vonnegut’s Third Rule for Fiction

Bad me. I’ve neglected to direct you to Aaron’s wonderful short story, An Affair To Forget. Only 99¢ in the Amazon Kindle Store!

Now on to the 3rd Rule in his guest post this week:

By adgansky

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. –Kurt Vonnegut

It should go without saying that our protagonists should want something. If they don’t, then we have no story. There really are three indispensable elements of fiction: character, desire, and conflict. Without these three, fiction cannot exist. Conflict, however, is derived from the character and their desire. If a character wants a glass of water, the conflict might be that they’re stuck in a desert, or the fact that he forgot to pay the water bill and now his tap is dry. Without the desire for water, the bill is superfluous.

All that being said, what we as writers forget is the first portion of this adage. Vonnegut does not say “Every main character,” but simply, “Every character.” Giving protagonists a desire is usually pretty easy. Remembering that our smaller characters have desires of their own is a different matter. We tend to think of these “minor” characters as planets circling the sun of our protagonist. They exist and revolve around their story. But this robs us of a beautiful opportunity. Conflict is often derived from opposition of character desires.

For example, there is one glass of water, and two characters want it. Or, there is one glass of water. One wants to drink it, the other wants to dump it on his head for some momentary relief from the suns unrelenting rays. Bob wants to marry Sally now, but Sally wants to explore Africa before settling down. Sue wants to go to college, but her mom wants her to stay to care for her ailing father.

Then, take it to the next step. Give Sarah a friend. This friend should want Sarah to come to college with her. But Sarah’s boyfriend, who’s staying in town, should pressure her to stay and care for her father so that he can be with her.

The hot dog vendor, who overhears all of this, just wants all the rowdy kids to clear out from in front of his stand so he can get to the people behind them in line. The guy at the end of the line should be late for an appointment. They may be bit characters, but their desires should be clear, and should play a part in our story.

If you’re like me, you often forget to apply this rule to our auxiliary characters. We just don’t put the same amount of thought into our bit characters, so the become stock and irrelevant. Go through whatever you’re working on now. Identify every character in your story. Then, find out what it is that they want. Why do they want it? What will they do to get it? How might it affect the course of the protagonists story. Often, you’ll find this takes your novel in a new direction, a more organic, believable, poignant direction.

Vonnegut’s Second Rule of Writing Fiction

Hello from New Orleans and thanks to Aaron Gansky for this week’s guest post. Enjoy and let the good times roll! (note: I added the image for fun)

By adgansky

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. –Kurt Vonnegut

I’m going to go ahead and say it. This is a rule that should never be broken. In fact, the simple brilliance of this line is so stunning, that I really wish I’d said it first. If ever there was a rule that had it’s finger on the pulse of fiction, this would be it. We could make cases and argue over the others, but this one I think we have to concede, there’s really no way around it.

Of course there will be naysayers. There’s always someone to assert their rebellious spirit and shout loudly that there are no rules in fiction, that rules were made to be broken, and that true genius can find away around the boundaries we mere mortals erect for ourselves. I have to believe that these people exist, because I used to be one of them. However, I think that even the most obstinate “freedom writer” out there must tip his or her hat to Vonnegut on this one.

To those of you who may still feel that there are ways around this, think of it this way: maybe there are. But why would you want to take them?

I’d also say that this rule does not mean that we must “like” the protagonist, but it sure does help. I’ll use Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. For those of you who’ve not read it, the book follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and survivor of the Dresden fire bombings in Germany. The premise is that he’s come unstuck in time and he jumps back and forth to random points in his life.

What’s interesting about it is that Billy Pilgrim is far from what we would call a hero. Vonnegut even goes so far as to say that there are no heroes or villains in the book. And he’s right. Billy does not behave like a hero—especially not a war hero. He never kills anyone, never even handles a weapon. In fact, most of his time in the war is spent hoping that he’d simply just die. Nearly every moment of Billy’s life is mundane, boring, and often tragic. But it is the tragedy of Billy’s life that make us root for him. We want so desperately for something good to happen to him, even though he’s no Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He feels as much like a real person as you can get, even though he’s a bit of a loser. And thusly, he becomes sympathetic.

Rooting for a character does not mean you have to “like” them in the normal sense of the word. I’d never invite Billy Pilgrim over for dinner. But I sure don’t want him to die. I want something good to happen to him. I want him to find some moment of happiness. In several ways, the novel is about that—Pilgrim’s quest for contentment. He seldom finds it, but when he does, the moments are that much sweeter.

Take a moment to reflect on the novels you’ve read. Which stand out as the best? Which characters did you find yourself most pulling for? Do you recall any in which you didn’t care whether the character succeeded or not? Now think of what you’re currently writing. Who is the reader rooting for? Are there several, or only one? Are there any at all?

take care: UPDATED

get a free hug!

Do you take care of yourself? It’s important no matter who you are or what you do, but it’s also important for the writing itself. Your writing will do better if you the writer get enough sleep, some exercise, some snuggles or hugs, and time to daydream and ‘refill the well’ as Julia Cameron put it. I’m housesitting for a couple of artists and it’s a treat to be surrounded by art. I don’t take enough time out to go to plays, concerts, museums, galleries, readings, get a massage, etc.

Two other authors are talking about very different things, but both tie into this. First, Steven Pressfield has a great piece about some of his hardest years when he was learning how to write and the results were less than impressive:

Was I doing good work? Hell no. Everything I wrote was crap, and mainly I didn’t write at all. I had nothing to say. I had no point of view. I knew nothing and thought nothing. But still I was desperately driven. I’d work, save money, take a year or two and write a book. I say “book” but they weren’t books; when friends would read them, the look on their faces was excruciating. They were mortified.

Any of that familiar? Read the whole thing and save it for the hard days and those days will come. Will say, my closest friends had better poker faces! I also didn’t show anyone my earliest work until a guy at college asked to see a paper with the remark, “If you won’t let me read it, how will I ever get to know you?” (note: I was also painfully shy and so didn’t talk much). He said it with such kindness and genuine curiosity, I handed it over. Can’t say enough about kindness in this process. Anyway, even if you approach is steadier, it is usually a long hard slog to get your writing where you want it, where the reader enters the ‘fictive dream,’ and that takes us to Aaron Gansky’s latest on how to do that. I’m right there with him – when I read a book or watch a movie, I want to slip away into another reality. Creating that? A bit harder than receiving it:

As a writer, your job is to create a world that is tangible, experiential, and then hide yourself among the bushes so those who walk through the world cannot see you, cannot hear you. There’s nothing worse than a hyper self-aware writer….

Most are subtle traps we fall into, namely melodrama and over-writing. This is why subtlety is so important; it removes the writer from the forefront of the reader’s mind.

Read the rest for the ‘how to.’

Routine can be a great friend in getting past blocks and getting the writing done. Take care of yourself, establish a healthy routine. Which reminds me, there is that long association of writers and drinking/drugging. It’s possible to be creative, but it’s not necessary to the process (no matter what excuses you make for it- it’s not) and it shortens your career dramatically. Novelists can work all their lives, but add drugs and/or alcohol to the mix and you’ve got maybe 10 good years.

Do something nice for yourself today. And write something amazing. Keep going.

UPDATEHere’s Haruki Murakami on taking care of yourself as a novelist (especially when you’re writing 1,000 pg novel):

Murakami’s cool benefits from an un-nerdy background running a jazz club in his 20s, and his equally un-nerdy Ironman routine. As he detailed recently in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami rises at 4am on most mornings, writes until noon, spends the afternoon training for marathons and browsing through old record stores and turns in, with his wife, at 9pm. As a regime, it is almost as famous as his novels and has the clean, fanatical air of a correction to the mess of his 20s. It is also the kind of discipline necessary to crank out 1,000 complicated pages in three years.

To Murakami, built like a little bull, it’s a question of strength. “It’s physical. If you keep on writing for three years, every day, you should be strong. Of course you have to be strong mentally, also. But in the first place you have to be strong physically. That is a very important thing. Physically and mentally you have to be strong.”

His habit of repetition, whether a stylistic tic or a side-effect of translation from the Japanese, has the effect of making everything Murakami says sound infinitely profound. He has written about the metaphorical importance of his running; that to complete an action every day sets a kind of karmic example for his writing. “Yes,” he says. “Mmmmm.” He makes a long contemplative sound. “I need strength because I have to open the door.” He mimes heaving open a door. “Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It’s a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it’s literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel.”

Is there an element of fear to overcome in those actions every morning?

“It’s just routine,” he says and laughs loudly. “It’s kind of boring. It’s a routine. But the routine is so important.”

The whole thing is worth reading.

file under less is more

A hand, a foot, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imaginèd.
(Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1427-8)

What if you write a scene of sex, violence, or intense emotion and focus only on one of the character’s body parts? Oh stop, not the obvious ones either. And yeah, I’m being silly with the crab legs. Have some fun, for goodness sake.

What would happen if you select just one of the senses and focused an entire scene through it?


Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning.


As far as sensory detail goes, the sense of smell is often overlooked. Writing can gain power not only with focus, but with the specific. Simple words can pack the most punch. Try zeroing in on only what your character smells in a paragraph and see where it takes you. It needn’t be as dark as Apocalypse Now, but it can be just as memorable.

Aaron Gansky discusses deeply imagining over at his blog. Check it out, then spend some time daydreaming (purposeful daydreaming, that is). Then of course, you have to write it down.

If you get tripped up by rules, take a look at what it perhaps the best copy editing blog out there, The Subversive Copy Editor. Now then, no more excuses. Go write.

wall to wall writing

Moss Wall by Olafur Eliasson

Just took a walk and saw a new house going up. There is no yard. I don’t exaggerate – nothing in the front, nothing in the back. The entire  lot is filled with house as close to the property lines as the law allows. Saw the same thing at a huge lot near UCLA. Got me to thinking about the idea of leaving room. In narrative, you need to leave room for the reader to imagine, to breath, sometimes to rest from the action. It’s part of why it’s necessary to vary the way you use language, sentence length and so on.

In his ongoing discussion of first lines, writer Aaron Gansky discusses compound-complex and run on sentences, including Dickens’ epic compound comma splice. There are points there to keep in mind for every sentence.

Beyond playing around with the sentence, it’s the way you present the action and characters and probably most essential, the manner in which you choose to narrate your story. If the narrator is overbearing and must tell the reader everything that’s going on, what is left for the reader to figure out? How can the reader possibly engage when there is nothing left to do? Give them a little space and your reader will do a lot of work for you. Use it to your advantage. Allow them the time and space to use their imaginations and they will love you for it. And love your book. Now get to work and write it.


My artist and writer friends inspire me because they’ve developed the habit of art. That has me thinking about the question a non-fiction writer posed recently: how do you write (or start) a novel? It’s easy to throw out silly phrases: one page a time or the Nike approach (just do it), but that’s annoying. I don’t outline (not ahead of time – it can be helpful after the first draft), so how do I start and keep at it? Most of the time, I have a vague idea and then something will happen – a snatch of conversation overheard and I imagine the circumstances around it or a tangential detail in a news story will spark something…. Sometimes a theme won’t leave me alone. If I go for long walks and allow myself time to ruminate, characters tend to show up. I imagine little scenes, start writing some of them down and a story emerges. I tend to think most novelists have to find their own way. I have met few who write a novel the same way twice, much less feel they have a handle on the process no matter how many they write.

Aaron Gansky has more on observation and what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the habit of art.

Great (and concise!) advice from Rob Roberge on metaphors and similes.

Write a message to your future self and see what happens in a few years. Great thing to do right before college or grad school to have emailed after graduation.

Over the next few weeks or months, decide which five activities are essential to your life as a writer.

What are mine, you ask?

Every day I read

Every day I write

Every day I imagine

Every day I reflect

Every day I ask for direction

There is no secret. It is daily work. You don’t have to sit and write for 8 or 10 hours a day. Some people might, but for me that’s a chore and counter-productive. The amount of time is secondary to daily activity and that’s what keeps me both productive and joyful.