Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and decided to create a five-week long series uncovering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Firstly, I covered Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, then Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and this week I’m focussing on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules.

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer who’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, you probably read in high-school, and if you didn’t, I recommend you slide that puppy to the top of your TBR pile!

Vonnegut’s writing career spanned 50+ years. He published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further collections published after his death.

If you haven’t read any of Vonnegut’s work, then here’s a quick quote that captures the his spirit well:

“Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

Now, I do want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

In the following blog, I list Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.

Rule #1: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This rule takes on a totally different meaning in the age of technology. People are busy, our attention spans are shorter, we’re highly distracted, and we have easy access to entertainment. Contemporary novelists aren’t competing among themselves, they’re competing with Netflix, Stand, YouTube, Social Media, and so on.

Few people will stick with a book that isn’t demanding their attention, that they don’t feel compelled to read.

Few people are willing to invest their time in a work that doesn’t give them something back.

Rule #2: Give the reader at least one character they can root for.

I’ve read a lot of novels over the last few years, both literary and genre, whose casts are comprised of despicable characters; however, there was always one character who I despised a little bit less than everyone else or whose flaws were more endearing than off putting.

Everyone likes a fuck-up with a heart of gold. 

I absolutely believe that there are readers out there who are sophisticated enough to stay with a book whose characters are complex, contradicting, and unlikeable; I can think of several authors who’ve made best-selling careers out of this formula, and yet, even in these challenging works there is at least one character for whom the reader can root for.

Every character must want something
Every character must want something, even if it is a glass of water.

Rule #3: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

One classic craft rule is, ‘figure out what your character wants and then take it away from them.’ This one simple tactic forms the basis of tension, character motivation, and narrative-drive.

If you know what your characters want, you also know the general trajectory of the plot, the core conflict, potential obstacles, and who your protagonist is.

Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 

This circles back to rule number one: don’t waste people’s time. You cannot afford to have any dead sentences in your story; every line must be doing something. A novel that keeps us awake until 2 a.m. does so because each sentence pulls us along into the next.

If a story is constantly turning, a reader will stick with it.

If the writer gives in to his poetic genius by publishing purple prose, then the reader will set down the book and turn on Netflix.

Every scene must do something, either reveal character or move the story forward.

Rule #5: Start as close to the end as possible.

This is a different take on ‘start in the middle’, but it bears the same philosophy: the only person who needs 150 pages of backstory is the author.

My favourite anecdote about this comes from Jay Kristoff, author of the Nevernight trilogy. While revising book one, Kristoff deleted 80,000 words from the start of the novel. Why? Because it was all backstory!

Now, you can weave that backstory into the main plot or you can allow that backstory to inform the narrative, but you do not need to hold the reader’s hand through pages of ‘set-up’ material.

We don’t care where a character has come from, we care where they are, and where they’re going.

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.

Rule #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.

This is probably the hardest rule, or at least it is for me.

If you love your characters, or at least like them, then you’re rooting for them to succeed. You want them to achieve their goals and to live long, happy, pain-free lives.

Unfortunately, that’s not very interesting to read. And victories without losses, aren’t that compelling.

We want to see the character overcome obstacles, pull up by their bootstraps, be clever, and survive emotional and physical setbacks; we want them to earn their victories.

Rule #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.

You decide who that person is; however, I hope that person is yourself.

Whether you decide to go indie or traditional, publishing is hard and you cannot control your readership. What you can control is your story. It would suck to spend five years writing a story that you think will sell and then have it tank. It would be even worse to write a book you aren’t that into, have it succeeded, and then feel compelled to continue in that series, genre, or style.

The best way to be happy as a writer is to write what you want to write, anything else will feel like a waste of time, money, or passion.

Rule #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.

This rule is perhaps a little controversial, though I have to say, I needed this advice while writing Every Time He Dies. There is a careful balance between withholding information as a form of suspense and withholding so much that your reader either becomes confused or bored, but what Vonnegut is getting at is that you can create narrative drive by dripping out information.

You need more than a good secret to keep a reader reading.

It is far more interesting to be given the information, to see what the core conflict is, and then to follow the character as they go about resolving it.


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2 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing

  1. […] If you’ve been following along these past few week’s then you already know that I am doing a series all about writing rules. I started off this series with Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and last week I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of fiction writing. […]


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