So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story, which originally appeared in his collection Bagombo Snuff Box, are a perennial favorite of bloggers because of their blog-friendly humor and pith, so I would probably be well advised to stay away from such familiar material, but I think they are worth sharing and discussing because they are specifically rules for writing short stories.

(Among other places, you can find them here, here, and here.)

Rule One is “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” I love the fact that Vonnegut foregrounds the duty of the writer to the reader. In fact, he goes on to declare that this is the only inviolable rule.

I read a lot of short stories that don’t work, and one characteristic that many share is that they feel as if they were written with no reader in mind. Of course, I don’t know what’s actually going on in the brains of those writers, but many of the stories I see feel as if they are simply the rote execution of an idea. The author came up with a clever plot or gimmick and sat down to work it out on paper, with no sense of how an eventual reader would experience the unfolding of the story, of whether she would feel that her time reading it was wasted.

It seems so appropriate that Vonnegut, whose work was so concerned with the problem of solitude and our responsibilities to one another as fellow creatures, should make his first authorial concern the responsibility of the writer to the reader.

Story-telling presupposes an audience – else, why bother? – and this fact imposes obligations on the writer.

By the way, Vonnegut’s eighth rule is a particularly chewy one for mystery writers to grapple with:  “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.”

Finally, I’ll leave you with this: Vonnegut recently received the Library of America treatment, which produced this appreciation in The Nation.


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2 responses to “So It Goes

  1. Most mystery sites do indeed post rules for writers. Elmore Leonard’s are a favorite. I always protest against those. I don’t believe people should set up rules for others. It’s hard nough to follow one’s own rules. I usually say, not very originally, “Don’t fence me in.” I think I’ve broken every rule in every book at some point. I had no choice in the matter. Or I hope I didn’t. One ought to have a good reason for what one writes, for the decisions one makes, but I confess I change my mind sometimes. Those are arguments I have with myself. I don’t dictate to others. They probably have enough on their hands, dealing with their own choices.

    • Publishers rules involving format and presentation are a given. There has to be standards. Connecting with the reader, however, is most important. Plot may drive the story, but channeling the characters is what steers the readers to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is writing at its most creative.

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