Monday, March 14, 2011

Prithee, Inform Me: The Rules of Writing

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, and today I'd like to share with you, gentle readers/writers, his eight rules for writing fiction.

They are:

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.

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 charcters, 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.

(These are from the above link, which in turn borrows them from Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.)

Now, many successful writers have broken some (or nearly all) of these rules on several occasions, and I don't completely agree with all of them (my biggest quarrel is with #8). I do, however, think they comprise one of the better succinct "how-to" (or "how-not-to") guides to writing fiction, and I think they go a long way toward explaining why even fiction that isn't written that well can sell like hotcakes.

Yes: hotcakes.

Now, it should also come as no surprise to you that I am decidedly not a fan of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books (to use a somewhat dated example). However! I think they sell for many reasons apart from this country's recent obsession with vampires and the perpetual attraction of teenage girls to mysterious, well-coiffed boys. Some of those reasons include: Meyer gives the reader someone to root for; every characer in her books wants something; terrible things happen to her protagonists; &c, &c.

Some of Vonnegut's rules are a bit vague (see #1), but I think they nonetheless provide good benchmarks for whether or not one's fiction is, at the very least, functional. What I like best about them is that they're reader-oriented, not craft-oriented, so the question "What does the reader want? What will engage him/her?" is always paramount.

So I ask you, mes auteurs: what are your favorite writing quote/unquote rules? Which do you follow and which do you break? Which authors/books have proved themselves most useful to you when writing your own fiction?

To the comments!


  1. I love these rules! Great stuff. Very good to be reminded.

    (my creative writing blog)

  2. Loved this!!

    As far as rules go, I most likely break them more than keep them. I have lists of writing quotes and rules, read them often, then do what I want. Is that a good thing? I don't know... but I love the art too much to care!

    The biggest rule though, which he does touch on:
    You write for yourself. No one else.

  3. Write what you want to read - CS Lewis

  4. These are great rules—and I like that CS Lewis advice.

    However, like you, I think #8 is a little . . . misguided? I tend to prefer Alfred Hitchcock's definition of suspense. To paraphrase his example, he says that if we have a couple at a diner and the table explodes, we give our readers a surprise (after a boring scene). BUT if we show the bad guys planting the bomb, show them setting the timer, show the clock, show the couple arriving at the same diner, show them being seated at the table, show the clock—we hold our readers in suspense. Every word the characters speak is imbued with dramatic irony. We're yelling for them to run away.

    I feel that if we only create suspense by withholding information, we're cheating our readers. Real suspense comes from giving more information.

  5. I like Elmore Leonard's #10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    I think of this whenever I come across a passage in a book I'm reading that makes me want to scream: "Enough already! Who cares?" I hope I am equally as aware of it in my own writing!

    One other thing I've learned along the way is to have the confidence in yourself to know when a rule doesn't apply. A new writer can become so tied to the rules that they lose their voice completely. The rules are useful as a guideline; we hear them repeated over and over for a reason: They usually apply. Only you, as the writer, can know when they DON'T apply.

    Good blog, Eric. Thanks! CJ

  6. R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain

  7. Great rules :) Kurt's short rules are a great place #8 could be taken to an over-detailed place. It's impossible to care, in the opening paragraph, unless you know a little about the character you are meant to empathise with.

  8. Broke most. My editor kept me on track. Write something (the present story in progress) everyday is what got my two books finished. My third book is a neglected child. This one I had my hand slapped a few times - "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." - Thanks will print these out in hopes of becoming a real writer some day & not just a kiddie-on one.

  9. Excellent post! Thank you. No. 8 does give me pause as well, then again I have no reason to suspect cockroaches will eat the last few pages, and if they did, I'd have more pressing problems.

  10. Jordon, Hitchcock called it a McGuffin (sp).

    Best book for writers:
    Lawrence Block's, Make Every Word Count

  11. I love these rules, great post!

  12. "Write what you love."

    I don't know who said it. Hopefully everyone.

    My grandpa loves to tell a story about a friend of his who loved graphic design, but everyone told him that it was a waste of time. There was no money in it etc. So he spent years and years studying architecture abroad. He was good, but he never loved it. Lo and behold, he eventually came back to the states, and saw with the advent of computers, graphic design had exploded, and he'd missed the boat.

    Applicable to all sorts of things. Today: writing.

  13. my wife printed these rules out for me and put them on the wall in my writing room for me. i think they cut to the heart of the matter, as vonnegut so often did so well.

    (hmmm... i wonder if my wife was trying to tell me something.)

    -- Tom

  14. I tend to see most rules more as guidelines.

    No, I don't go around willy-nilly and breaking rules. I just bend them where I see that they will do damage to the story.


  15. Loved #3. I'll have an Evian, please.

  16. I love these! I picked up Bagombo Snuff Box for a dollar at a thrift shop, which was the cheapest writers' training ever.

    I come back to #1 again and again. It's the fundamental rule from which the others spring. If you truly respect your reader and appreciate their investment in your work, you need to see everything from their point of view. It takes the writer's ego out of the equation. I love #6, too.

  17. My quote of the day:

    It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. -- Jonathan Franzen

  18. "Tension on every page--in every sentence, if possible."

    People keep reading because they want to know what happens. Thus, you want every sentence to be a promise that things are escalating, that a blow-up is inevitable.

    "Show, don't tell."

    I try to always do this, because "telling" is simply flat and dull writing. That said, "telling" can be the fastest way to speed past the boring bits of the story--to "leave out the part that readers tend to skip", as Elmore put it. "Telling" has its place in the writer's toolkit.

  19. I have deconstructed the writing process to its most fundamental mechanics. Here are my tips. I beg your indulgence.

    1. Have an idea. This is not absolutely necessary but it helps. If you don't have an idea, following these procedures will still result in quality writing

    2. Have a place to sit. Alternatively, a place to stand will suffice so long as it's
    reasonably private. Many great writers with hemorrhoids did their work standing up.

    3. Have a device that produces marks that conform to the alphabet of your chosen language. Mate that device with a surface or medium to record the device's impressions.

    4. Remain stationary for a long period of time while operating the aforementioned device. The recording medium or surface should be placed to maximize comfort. When the recording medium can't be comfortably placed, many great writers have alleviated their discomfort with whiskey, vodka and tobacco.

    5. If you begin with an idea, it's optimum to use the language-marking-device to elaborate upon that idea. If you do not have an idea, it's best to use the language marking equipment anyway, because great success has been enjoyed by authors without ideas.

    6. Assuming that words are being employed, it's always best to put the words in a particular order, using the idea as a guidepost. If you do not have an idea it's still desirable to put words in such an order as to be modestly intelligible.

    7. It's okay to have ideas change in mid-writing. If you can't incorporate the original idea into the new idea, start over. If this happens frequently, do the opposite: keep the original idea and all subsequent ideas. Put the ideas into an arbitrary or improvised order. Famous writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs have used this technique to good effect.

    8. If you have had experiences that were interesting, dangerous or humorous, you can use them as dressing to fill out the original idea or non-idea.

    9. If you have not had any such experiences, you may borrow them from other people so long as they have not yet appeared in a widely circulated book or story .

    10. A tip for young people looking towards a writing career in the future: learn to write with a quill and keep a good quill sharpener handy at all times.

  20. "Develop a built-in bullshit detector." Ernest Hemingway

  21. (Elmore Leonard)leave out the bits the reader will skip; don't use "suddenly."
    (C.Dickens) make them laugh; make them cry.
    (?)(at opening)don't warm up your engines

  22. I too love these rules, I'd like them posted where I write; especially love #6 since it's hard for me to do because I'm always afraid I won't know how to get them out of the bad stuff.
    A writer that has inspired me is Jacqueline Carey and her "Kushiel" series of books, as well as Guy Kay and his "Sarantium" books. So well written, the characters rich and all want something. Carey's heroine, Phedre, is a particular favorite since her very existence is at times a trial. Highly recommend them.

  23. Writing what I want to read. Bad habit, but I read a rather wide range of genres, so it works for me.

    No.8? Arguably, I think it depends on the type of story. If I am writing a short story or novella, I believe it is vital to provide pertinent information as soon as possible. Succinctly or in detail, whatever works. Just get it out of the way, readers can refer back to it if necessary (but it shouldn't be), and then you can focus on characterization, build-up, climax and resolution.

  24. Don't worry about the rules when writing the first draft. Focus on the story and character developemnt -- You can fix everything else later.

    Disagree with #8. Suspense can be (I didn't say "is") essential. Not everyone achieves the big payoff when trying to build tension, but when we do it's an awesome thing.

    As for authors I admire, there is one who stands out: Dashiell Hammett. No muss, no fuss. Story, action, sparse narrative... He offers just enough detail to let you know where you are and leaves the rest to your imagination, all the while packing his short stories and books with memorable characters and fast-paced action.

  25. Where do I start?

    Never violate a character's core principles without serious consequences. Superpowers cause problems, they don't fix them. Keep your promises - if you mention it, make it matter somewhere down the line.

    I've not only learned wonderful 'rules' (principles is a better word) of writing from Holly Lisle's Writer's Boot Camp courses, I have learned how to keep them.

    There's a button to her stuff on my site, or just Google. I highly recommend.

  26. When embarking on the first draft - Don't get it right, get it written.

  27. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for sharing!

    I read a quote, well a paraphrase actually, that's stuck with me:
    "Murder your darlings"

    That's something I've always felt was a good recommendation.

  28. Great post. I agree that it's helpful to see a writer's list that focuses on the reader's experience.
    My favorite piece of writing advice is from James Baldwin: write every sentence "as clean as a bone."

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