Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

When it came to giving advice to writers, Kurt Vonnegut was never dull. He once tried to warn people away from using semicolons by characterizing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” In this brief video, Vonnegut offers eight tips on how to write 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.
  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 heck 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 put down his advice in the introduction to his 1999 collection of magazine stories, Bagombo Snuff Box. But for every rule (well, almost every rule) there is an exception. “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor,” writes Vonnegut. “She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

via BrainPickings

Related content:

Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Kurt Vonnegut: ‘How to Get a Job Like Mine’ (2002)

Kurt Vonnegut Reads from Slaughterhouse-Five

A couple stories by Vonnegut in our collections of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books

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  • Bobby-Jane says:

    As a transvestite hermaphrodite, I find the notion that I don’t represent anything offensive.

  • Vonnegut brought a zany yet scientific voice to life which pointed out the absurdities of modern life and warfare. I was inspired to embody him in a surrealist portrait on my artist’s blog which you can see at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/11/happy-birthday-mr-vonnegut.html

  • I think Tip 2 is probably the most important. If you don’t have a sympathetic character, you won’t be fully invested into the story.

  • Shelley says:

    That as writers we should give our readers someone to root for seems so obvious, and yet so much fiction today seems oblivious to that very human need!

  • Ed C says:

    Most of the tips are helpful, but #8 fundamentally breaks #1.

    “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible”…which is also known as an “info dump”. Blasting the reader with a fire hose of information in beginning, at best, leads to confusion–or worse, the reader just walks away.

    The story should start where the action starts. As #1 points out, don’t waste a strangers time. Don’t waste it with actionless expositories and backstory. Details that the reader needs to know are who the character is and where the character is. The rest can be given as needed.

    “To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why.”

    Kill the suspense, kill the story. If the reader has no motivation to turn the page, they won’t. Again, this comes right back to #1, don’t waste a stranger’s time.

    There’s a wide gap between “suspense” and “confusion”. Yes, the reader should always know that’s going on and where, but why is a different matter. The reader should have a sense that there is a reason for what is happening, but they may not always know that is.

    “…that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

    If the last few pages are so meaningless that cockroaches could eat them, then don’t even bother writing them because the reader will regret reading them. Again, this comes right back to #1, don’t waste a stranger’s time. Knowing the ending long before the story gets there is the probably the best way for readers to feel that their time has been wasted!

    The best endings are the ones that make sense in hindsight, not before; it’s where all of the pieces of puzzle were given beforehand, but a final solution is revealed. An astute reader might solve it early, but this should never be a given. If the ending is so obvious that everyone knows it before they get there, they have no reason to get to the end, or even turn the next page.

  • Ian P says:

    Ed C – I agree with you.

    I felt ashamed to contradict a master, but come on… suspense is at the heart of many of my favourite short stories.

    While providing info at the beginning doesn’t have to be an “info dump” if done well, it is not something i feel is necessary… stringing things out – the subtle and timely “reveals” – is another useful tool to bring the reader along on the journey.

    And leaving a story to obvious to not need to be finished? Sheesh… that’s cray.

    The best endings make sense in hindsight, or require a bit of work to conclude on… and personally i feel they’re made even better if not all of your friends agree on the same conclusion!

  • Tom Auten says:

    Let’s see, who do I enjoy reading more: Kurt Vonnegut or Ed C?

  • dan says:

    really Ed C? do you not GET what he is saying? 8 has NOTHING to do with 1.

    it’s not wasting time to read the ending, he is just saying that the reader – in a short story – needs to become part of the story quickly and THEREFORE can complete the story themselves. Wow, and people are agreeing with you. I think KV had a slight notion on how a short story works.

    May we read one of yours?

  • Greg says:

    I teach for a living. (Not writing, but my students write a lot of papers in class.). I may use this as guidance for nonfiction also. At least half the suggestions apply.

    My view of teaching is there are two capital offenses.
    1. Wasting time.
    2. Boring people.

    I’m on board with KV here.

    So it goes.

  • Leigh says:

    Ed: I see what you’re going for with #8, but I think Kurt is speaking within the confines of a short story and what is relevant to it. It’s essentially “don’t dawdle” with the information your story actually needs.

    My impression of what he says about endings is similar to what I’ve heard about flash fiction, which is that it’s better to spend more time letting the punch sink in and developing interest than building towards a shocking ending.

    In practice, I’ve seen a lot of mixed approaches with mixed results.

    I think a novel like Harry Potter can afford to build towards a grand finish that you really can’t see coming, but short stories often function better as snapshots and might feel like they come to a sudden stop. Part of the point of a short story is that you don’t have a chapter to spend wrapping up the explosive ending and giving a reader closure.

    Just because a reader knows where a story is going doesn’t mean it can’t have impact, though.

    These are only my impressions. Take them with a grain of salt.

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