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.

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?