Kurt Vonnegut’s Seventh Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re almost there – here’s #7 of 8 rules for writing fiction by Mr. Vonnegut as delivered by guest blogger Aaron Gansky.

by adgansky

7. 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. –Kurt Vonnegut

Pneumonia, maybe, and a host of other things. Would we call this literary promiscuity? Perhaps, and the same risks apply. Vonnegut is not alone in his call for monogamous literature. Stephen King, in his book On Writing discusses a similar idea. He mentions that every writer has an ideal reader, and should hold that ideal reader in their mind as they’re writing. For King, his wife is his ideal reader.

We’ve heard the adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The same holds true for fiction. If you write to please all of the people, more often than not, you will fail to please anyone (most notably and sadly, yourself). Your story will lose itself in trying to be something that it’s not, that it shouldn’t be. It will get lost in itself, so to speak, and perhaps never see the light of day.

Your ideal reader may be the same for all your books, or they may change. For example, if you’re writing a western, you’ll likely have one reader in mind, maybe your father with whom you grew up watching Bonanza. Maybe, after the western, you try your hand at a fantasy, and your ideal reader is now your first girlfriend, who swore she wanted to save up her money to have plastic surgery on her ears to make them pointed like an elf’s. Maybe you write a horror, and you think of your best friend with whom you spent every Halloween for the last twenty years. Then again, you may be lucky enough to have, as King does, a wife that fulfills multiple roles and, regardless of the genre, serves as an ideal reader.

Either way, understanding who  your ideal reader is can help shape the path of the novel—what would they most like to see next? What would surprise them here? How would they feel about this particular scene?

Knowing your reader (singular) can also help you finish your book. Two often we get caught up in trying to add something for everyone, which is both futile and frustrating. Somewhere, about a hundred pages in or so, you’ll realize that your novel lacks a clear direction. There are too many threads to make a quilt. Instead, you’re working with enough threads to make several bed sets.

Streamline and focus. Your reader will thank you.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sixth Rule for Writing Fiction

Well, this is embarrassing – I lost track of the days, but better late than never. #6! Thanks, Aaron. Now let’s all go make life difficult for our characters.

Also, a hearty shoutout to friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed: Her memoir Wild hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!!

Now here’s Aaron:

by adgansky

6. 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’re made of. –Kurt Vonnegut

No one likes to betray a friend, but we sometimes feel that way when we make bad things happen to our characters. But then, maybe you don’t feel that way. maybe it’s easy for you to throw obstacles at your protagonist because you don’t care much for them. Ideally, though, you will feel a little bit bad when you, as I did recently, have a Sasquatch jump out of a forest and beat your favorite character near to death (it’s a fantasy–work with me here). I may have cried a little. I do that sometimes.

For me, this rule, like the greatest two-handed broadsword, is double-edged. On one edge, we need to create (or, as some might say, build or discover, depending on your personal writing philosophy) characters that we love, that we hate to hurt. If we’re not doing this–if we as their creator don’t have an intense emotional connection to them, how much less will the reader care?–we’re letting our readership down. Our characters’ pain should, at least in some small part, become our pain.

The second side we need to allow our characters to experience these misfortunes. If we don’t, we’ll never really know them. How do they react when faced with Sasquatch in a dimly lit forest and the break of day? How do they cope when their loved one dies? How do their bodies mend after a car crash? How do they recover psychologically after a messy divorce? After being betrayed by their best friend? What does this do to them?

This is not to say that the characters life must be one tragedy after another, a veritable helicopter rotary blade of horrors. Your character should overcome, should be rewarded for their efforts. Just understand, that, once they do, something else must threaten them, or their families, or their fortunes, or whatever it is that they care most about.

Wallace Stevens says that, “Death is mother of beauty.” This may suggest that we only appreciate beauty because we know it is temporary, we know that there is an ever-abiding threat. If beauty persisted indefinitely, we would not call it beauty. We would not even notice it to begin with.

Make something beautiful by introducing something that threatens it. Take something your character feels is permanent, and then threaten it. Then, and only then, can you see what your character is truly made of.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fifth Rule for Writing Fiction

Thanks to Aaron for another guest post while I’m on the road in Morocco.

By adgansky

5. Start as close to the end as possible. –Kurt Vonnegut

endLast week, I had a student approach me to ask my opinion on something they were working on. The story opened inside a hospital with the birth of a child. I liked the idea immediately, and anticipated some sort of tragic transpiring—mom’s life would be in danger, or baby’s. Or maybe baby would have a tale. Or maybe there was no dad. Or maybe dad was off to war. What an amazing opportunity for conflict.

Unfortunately, nothing so tragic happened. It was a standard birth, with no complications. And while the protagonist (baby) would eventually lead a revolution (I think) and save a world, and while their birth was significant in that regard, the birth itself felt as if it were included because the student didn’t know where else to begin. He’s in very good company.

The story goes, as I recall, that F. Scott Fitzgerald read an early version of The Sun Also Rises. He praised the novel as a whole, but took a few issues with the first two chapters. He gently encouraged Hemmingway to revise them. Hemmingway, in spectacular diva fashion, tore the first two chapters out completely. Turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea.

There seems to be within us, especially as we begin writing, a desire—a compulsion, really—to tell “the whole story.” And we want to start at the beginning so that our readers can know every detail of characters’ lives. The problem is, readers seldom care. What they care about is conflict. And the closer you begin to the end, the more conflict exists, the more readers are immersed in your world.

To do this, it may help to have a rough outline of where you want to go with your story. Find out where you want your characters to end up, then start as close to that point as possible. Some writers actually choose to begin the story a few minutes from the end, then flash back and show everything that happened to lead up to that point (think Thelma and Louise). While that’s an interesting tactic, we can’t use it every time. Sometimes it’s just better to do the Hemmingway bit—write the book, then rip out the first two chapters. Usually, what you’ll find, is that the rest of the story does an excellent job revealing whatever back story is necessary in a more natural way. Besides, doing this well allows you to create a sense of mystery.

But of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Fantasy and Science Fiction, generally speaking, would be the exception. Most readers of these genres understand that they’re in for the long haul. They also expect that most stories in these genre take a certain shape (usually the undertaking of a quest that sets the protagonist on a journey across an unfamiliar world or worlds).

This is a rule that has a lot more play room than some of the others. Which strategy is right for you? Regardless of genre, stories need conflict immediately. Check your novel for which conflict you establish on page one. The second step is to read. A lot. What are the masters doing? How are they doing it? Can you do something similar? It might benefit you to make a list of your favorite books and writers and go back and analyze the opening of each of their beginnings. How close to the end do they begin? What does that tell you about your writing.

For what it’s worth, I actually went back and deleted the first two paragraphs of this post. No lie.

Happy starting.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re halfway through Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing. We will get to the last four in a couple of weeks – this blog will be on hiatus until after July 4th. Keep writing and please check out Aaron’s blog.

By adgansky

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.

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.