Eight rules for writing a short story

by | Aug 23, 2009 | Blog, Improve your writing | 3 comments

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut lists these rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root* for. (This ugly Americanism means “to barrack for”, but I am not about to rewrite Vonnegut’s sentence. And it is no less ugly than its non-American usage, I guess.)
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  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 are made of.
  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.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.

Vonnegut also points out that Flannery O’Connor, like most great writers, broke all these rules except the first. As someone new to writing fiction, I would say that if you can adhere to Rule #1, then you don’t need to worry about the rest of the rules, although I heartily endorse #3, #4, and #5. I’m trying to be more of a Sadist – inventing terrible things to happen to my characters (as per #6) – although too much of that turns prose into the mush of melodrama.

I’ve been challenged and occasionally thrilled these past months by my weekly classes at The Writers Studio, which encourage playfulness and experimentation in approaching one’s persona-narrator. Fiction writers seek a seamless meeting of narrative style and subject matter. By trying on different writers’ styles through weekly exercises, the Writers Studio method aims to expand a writer’s technical tool-box so that she can make informed choices about how to tell a particular story. I will write about their method in more detail in a future post.

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