Kurt Vonnegut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Stories (and Amusingly Graphs the Shapes Those Stories Can Take)

You can't talk about American literature in the second half of the 20th century without talking about Kurt Vonnegut. And since so many well-known writers today imbibed his influence at one point or another, you'd have to mention him when talking about 21st-century literature as well. Despite so fully inhabiting his time, not least by wickedly lampooning it, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions also had a few tendencies that put him ahead of his time. He worked wonders with the short story, a form in whose heyday he began his writing career, but he also had a knack for what would become the most social media-friendly of all forms, the list.

In the video above, those abilities converge to produce Vonnegut's eight bullet points for good short-story writing:

  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.

In the short lecture above Vonnegut gets more technical, sketching out the shapes that stories, short or long, can take. On his chalkboard he draws two axes, the horizontal representing time and the vertical representing the protagonist's happiness. In one possible story the protagonist begins slightly happier than average, gets into trouble (a downward plunge in the story's curve), and then gets out of it again (returning the curve to a higher point of happiness than where it began). "People love that story," Vonnegut says. "They never get sick of it." Another story starts on an "average day" with an "average person not expecting anything to happen." Then that average person "finds something wonderful" (with a concurrent upward curve), then loses it (back down), then finds it again (back up).




The third and most complicated curve represents "the most popular story in Western civilization." It begins down toward the bottom of the happiness axis, with a motherless young girl whose father has "remarried a vile-tempered ugly women with two nasty daughters." But a fairy godmother visits and bestows a variety of gifts upon the girl, each one causing a stepwise rise in her happiness curve. That night she attends a ball where she dances with a prince, bringing the curve to its peak before it plunges back to the bottom at the stroke of midnight, when the fairy godmother's magical gifts expire. In order to bring the curve back up, the prince must use the glass slipper she accidentally left behind at the ball to — oh, you've heard this one before?

Vonnegut first explored the idea of story shapes in his master's thesis, rejected by the University of Chicago "because it was so simple and looked like too much fun." Clearly that didn't stop him from continuing to think about and experiment with those shapes all throughout his career. He would also keep clarifying his other ideas about writing and literature by explaining them in a variety of settings. He assigned term papers that can still teach you how to read like a writer, he appeared on television dispensing advice to aspirants to the craft, and he even published articles on how to write with style (in publications like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' journal at that). Nobody could, or should try to, write just like Kurt Vonnegut, but all of us who write at all could do well to give our craft the kind of thought he did.

Related Content:

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Kurt Vonnegut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Disgust with Civilization

Kurt Vonnegut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Teaches You to Read Fiction Like a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by U. Chicago

Kurt Vonnegut Urges Young People to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Margaret Atwood to Teach an Online Class on Creative Writing

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

The problem of dystopian fiction is this: quite often the worst future creative writers can imagine is exactly the kind of present that has already been inflicted on others—by colonialism, dictatorship, genocidal war, slavery, theocracy, abject poverty, environmental degradation, etc. Millions all over the world have suffered under these conditions, but many readers fail to recognize dystopian novels as depicting existing evils because they happen, or have happened, to people far away in space and time. Of course, Margaret Atwood understands this principle. The nightmares she has written about in novels like The Handmaid’s Tale have all already come to pass, she tells us.

In the promo video above for her Masterclass on Creative Writing starting this fall, Atwood says, “when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time. The reason I made that rule is that I didn’t want anybody saying, ‘You certainly have an evil imagination, you made up all these bad things.’” And yet, she says, “I didn’t make them up.” In a Swiftian way, she implies, we did—“we” being humanity writ large, or, perhaps more accurately, the destructive, greedy, power-mad individuals who wreak havoc on the lives of those they deem inferiors or rightful property.




“As a writer,” she says above, “your goal is to keep your reader believing, even though both of you know it’s fiction.” Atwood’s trick to achieving this is a devious one in what we might call sci-fi or dark fantasy (though she spurns these designations): she writes not only what she knows to be true, in some sense, but also what we know to be true, though we would rather it not be, as in Virginia Woolf’s characterization of fiction as “as spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

Atwood says that writers turn away from the blank page because they fear something. She has made it her business, instead, to turn toward fear, to see dark visions like those of her MaddAddam Trilogy, an extrapolation of horrors already happening, in some form, somewhere in the world (and soon to be a fun-filled TV series). What she feared in 1984, the year she began writing The Handmaid’s Tale, seems just as chillingly prescient to many readers—and viewers of the TV adaptation—thirty-four years later, a testament to Atwood’s speculative realism, and to the awful, stubborn resistance reality puts up to improvement.

As she put it in an essay about the novel’s origins, “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.” The same, perhaps, might be said of novelists. Do you have some truths to tell in fictional form? Maybe Atwood is the perfect guide to help you write them. Her class starts this fall, sign up here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Eleven Rules for Writing from Eight Contemporary Playwrights 

Chances are most of us won’t be immediately familiar with the eight mostly British playwrights reflecting on their process in the National Theatre’s video, above.

That’s a good thing.

It's easier to choose which pieces of inspiring, occasionally conflicting writing advice to follow when the scale's not weighted down by the thumb of celebrity.

(Though rest assured that there’s no shortage of people who do know their work, if the National Theater is placing them in the hot seat.)




It’s impossible to follow all of their suggestions on any given project, so go with your gut.

Or try your hand at one that doesn’t come naturally, especially if you’ve been feeling stuck.

These approaches are equally valid for those writing fiction, and possibly even certain types of poetry and song.

The National wins points for assembling a diverse group—there are four women and four men, three of whom are people of color.

Within this crew, it’s the women who overwhelmingly bring up the notions of permission and perfection, as in it’s okay to let your first draft be absolutely dreadful.

Most of the males are prone to plotting things out in advance.

And no one seems entirely at home marooned against a seamless white background on a plain wooden stool.

Jewish identity, school shootings, immigration, race, climate change, and homophobia are just some of the topics they have considered in their plays.

Some have worked in film and TV, adapted the classics, or written for young audiences.

They have won prestigious awards, seen their plays staged ‘round the globe, and had success with other artistic pursuits, including poetry, performance, and dance.

Clearly, you'll find some great advice below, though it's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Let us know in the comments which rules you personally consider worth following.

Eleven Rules for Writing from Eight Contemporary Playwrights

1. Start

or

2. Don’t start. Let your idea marinate for a minimum of six months, then start.

3.. Have some sort of outline or plan before you start

4. Do some research

5. Don’t be judgmental of your writing while you’re writing

6. Embrace the terrible first draft 

7. Don’t show anyone your first draft, unless you want to.

8. Know how it’s going to end

or

9. Don’t know how it’s going end

10. Work with others

11. Print it, and read it like someone experiencing it for the first time. No editing aloud. Get that pen out of your hand.

And now, it’s time to discover the work of the participating playwrights. Go see a show, or at least read about one in the links:

In-Sook Chappell

Ryan Craig

Suhayla El-Bushra

Inua Ellams

Lucy Kirkwood

Evan Placey

Tanya Ronder

Simon Stephens

The National Theatre has several fascinating playlists devoted to playwriting. Find them here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Wednesday, May 16 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A New Scientific Study Supports Putting Two Spaces After a Period … and a Punctuation War Ensues

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In former ages, wars erupted over the finer points of religious doctrine, a historical phenomenon that can seem perplexing to modern secularists. We’re past such things, we think. But then let someone bring up the Oxford comma or the number of spaces one should put after a period, and you may see writers, editors, and teachers pick sides and maybe come to blows in their defense of seemingly trivial grammatical and typographical standards. These debates approach the vehemence of Medieval arguments over transubstantiation.

I exaggerate, but maybe only slightly. There have been times, I confess, when I’ve felt I would fight for the serial comma. I grind my teeth and feel a rush of rage when I see two spaces instead of one after the end of sentences. Irrational, perhaps, but such is the human devotion to orthodoxy in the details. And so, when Skidmore College researchers Rebecca Johnson, Becky Bui, and Lindsay Schmitt published a paper last month in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics claiming scientific support for a two-space period, they virtually lobbed a bomb into offices everywhere.




Angela Chen at The Verge parried with an article calling two spaces a “horrible habit.” The practice “remains bad,” she writes, “it’s ugly, it doesn’t help when it comes to what matters most (reading comprehension), and the experiment that supports its benefits uses an outdated font style." (Don’t get me started on the font wars.) What was the experiment? The paper itself hides behind a redoubtable paywall, but Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher gets to the gist of the study on a cohort of 60 Skidmore students.

Having identified subjects' proclivities, the researchers then gave them 21 paragraphs to read (including one practice paragraph) on a computer screen and tracked their eye movement as they read using an Eyelink 1000 video-based eye tracking system. "Chin and forehead rests were used to minimize the reader's head movements," the Skidmore researchers wrote in their paper.

After the tracking, the researchers “evaluated the reading speed for each of the paragraph types presented in words per minute.... [they] found that two spaces at the end of a period slightly improved the processing of text during reading.” The study’s attempt to quantify the benefits of two spaces came after the American Psychological Association Manual's most recent edition, which, for some reason, has changed camps to two spaces.

Gallagher explains the space debate as stemming from the major technological shift in word processing: “For anyone who learned their keyboarding skills on a typewriter rather than a computer… the double-space after the period is a deeply ingrained truth.” Speaking as such a person, it isn’t, but he's right to note that typing teachers insisted on two spaces. Such was the standard until computers with variable-width fonts fully phased out typewriters.

So the Skidmore researchers raised the ire of Chen and others with their use of Courier New, a “fixed-width font that resembles typewritten text—used by hardly anyone for documents.” The blog Practical Typography analyzed the two space paper and remains unimpressed: "In sum—a small difference, limited to a certain category of test subjects, with numerous caveats attached. Not much to see here, I'm afraid." (This description might accurately describe thousands of published studies.)

This war will rage on—the study fueling these recent skirmishes does not seem to justify two-spacers claiming victory. And anyway, good luck getting the rest of us to abandon faith in the one true space.

via The Verge

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Malcolm Gladwell Explains Where His Ideas Come From

For many readers out there, the publication of a new Malcolm Gladwell article ranks as an event demanding immediate attention. They'll read whatever he writes, not just because they enjoy his style but because they trust his instinct for finding fascinating subjects, from coffee to health care, college rankings to dog training, shopping malls to school shootings. How did he develop that instinct? He reveals aspects of his idea-generating process in the seventeen-minute interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick just above. It turns out that, just as with most of us — or as it would ideally go with most of us — Gladwell's ideas sprout organically from his strengths.

But those strengths, in turn, sprout organically from his weaknesses. An early New Yorker assignment, handed down by then-editor Tina Brown, had Gladwell covering the 1989 attack on the woman referred to, at the time, as the Central Park Jogger. Instead of doing the kind of prolonged, emotional interviews many reporters would have done with the victim's friends and family, he instead contacted the surgeon who operated on her, ending up with a piece on "practice variation in medicine," the phenomenon whereby different medical practitioners in different regions of the country end up going about their job in persistently different ways. "They can't seem to get everyone on the same page," as Gladwell frames the problem.




The intersection of the New Yorker's tradition of and expectation for long-form pieces with his own inability to perform traditional reportage gave Gladwell a sense of where he should look for promising leads. Rejecting character as a hook, he instead goes looking for intriguing theories, operating on the conception of most writers as "experience-rich and theory-poor." Instead of simply reporting on the latest school shooting, for instance, he wrote about a Stanford sociologist's theory of riots that he could apply to the phenomenon of school shootings themselves. His next book, about which he reveals a thing or two in this interview, deals in part with a different kind of shooting: that committed by police.

"I have the advantage of coming to it late," Gladwell says to Remnick, explaining how his perspective and thus his writing on the subject might differ from those of others. That simple statement may hold the key to Gladwell's vault of ideas: with no obligation to give a rundown of the facts as they emerge, he can step back for a moment (be it a few months or a few decades) and get a sense of which stories will ultimately take the right shape to connect to the many broad, intriguing ideas, in the form of academic theory or otherwise, with which he's already familiarized himself. As much as Gladwell seems like a writer of the moment (and here he describes his "ur-reader" as a fortysomething Trader Joe's executive who only has time for three books a year, plus podcasts), he gets a fair bit of mileage out of one of the most old-fashioned assets of them all: a well-stocked mind.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Gustave Flaubert Tells His Mother Why Serious Writers Shouldn’t Bother with Day Jobs (1850)

We are what we do — or in other words, we are what we choose to spend our time doing. By this logic, a "musician" who spends one quarter of his time with his instruments and three quarters with Excel, though he counts as no less a human being for it, should by rights call himself a maker of spreadsheets rather than a maker of music. This view may sound stark, but it has its adherents, some of them successful and respected artists. We can rest assured that no less a creator than Gustave Flaubert, for instance, would surely have accepted it, if we take seriously the words of a letter he wrote to his mother in February of 1850.

Though he'd completed several books at the time, the then 28-year-old Flaubert had yet to make it as a man of letters. He did, however, do a fair bit of traveling at that time in his life, composing this particular piece of correspondence during a sojourn in the Middle East. It seems that even halfway across the world, he couldn't escape his mother's entreaties to find proper employment, if only "un petite place" that would grant him slightly more social respectability and financial stability. Finally fed up, he clarified his position on the matter of day jobs once and for all:

Now I come to something that you seem to enjoy reverting to and that I utterly fail to understand. You are never at a loss of things to torment yourself about. What is the sense of this: that I must have a job — "a small job," you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to specify in what field, or what it would be like. Frankly, and without deluding yourself, is there a single one that I am capable of filling? You add: "One that wouldn't take up much of your time and wouldn't prevent you from doing other things." There's the delusion! That's what Bouilhet told himself when he took up medicine, what I told myself when I began law, which nearly brought about my death from suppressed rage. When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those horses equally good for saddle and carriage — the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

In short, it seems to me that one takes a job for money, for honors, or as an escape from idleness. Now you'll grant me, darling, (1) that I keep busy enough not to have to go out looking for something to do; and (2) if it's a question of honors, my vanity is such that I'm incapable of feeling myself honored by anything: a position, however high it might be (and that isn't the kind you speak of) will never give me the satisfaction that I derive from my self-respect when I have accomplished something well in my own way; and finally, if it's for money, any jobs or job that I could have would bring in too little to make much difference to my income. Weigh all these considerations: don't knock your head against a hollow idea. Is there any position in which I'd be closer to you, more yours? And isn't not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?

The letter may well have convinced her: according to a footnote included in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, "there seem to have been no further suggestions" that he secure a steady paycheck. Could Flaubert's mother have had an inkling that her son would become, well, Flaubert? At that point he hadn't even begun writing Madame Bovary, a project that would begin upon his return to France. Its inspiration came in part from the early version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony he'd completed before embarking on his travels, which his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet (the reluctant medical student mentioned in the letter) suggested he toss in the fire, telling him to write about the stuff of everyday life instead.

Not all of us, of course, can work the same way Flaubert did, with his days spent in revision of each page and his obsessive lifelong hunt for le mot juste: not for nothing do we call him "the martyr of style." But whatever we create and however we create it, we ignore the words Flaubert wrote to his mother at our peril. The earning of money has its place, but the idea that any old day job can be easily held down without damage to our real life's work shades all too easily into self-delusion. We must remember that "when one does something, one must do it wholly and well," a sentiment made infinitely more powerful by the fact that Flaubert didn't just articulate it, he lived it — and now occupies one of the highest places in the pantheon of the novel as a result.

h/t Tom H.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Case for Writing in Coffee Shops: Why Malcolm Gladwell Does It, and You Should Too

Photo by Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons

I passed Malcolm Gladwell on the street a few years ago, on the final stop of a road trip I took from Los Angeles to Raleigh, North Carolina. At the time I wondered why the unmistakable New York-based writer, speaker, and interpreter of big ideas had come to town. But now that I know a little bit about his personal and professional habits, I can at least say with some confidence where he was going: a coffee shop. That Gladwell's work has, over the years, occasionally touched on the subject of coffee suggests he may well enjoy a good brew, but in that same time he's also stated, explicitly and repeatedly, that cafés are where he does the work itself.




"I loved the newsroom," Gladwell, who got his start in one, once told The Guardian. "When I left it I wanted to recreate the newsroom and the closest thing to a newsroom is any kind of random active social space." The best coffee shop offers what he calls "the right kind of distraction. There has to be some sort of osmotic process," just as happens with journalists together in the office. "I don’t particularly think coffee shops are amazing places to write," he more recently said in a podcast interview with economist Tyler Cowen (embedded below). "But I do think that simply being around people who are not my age is really useful."

"The coffee-shop writer needs to be, as the sociologists would say, an outlier and not a pioneer," Gladwell writes in the Wall Street Journal. (Even in a personal essay, it seems, he can't resist applying an academic concept to everyday life.) "You don't want to be the laptop cowboy who signals to other laptop cowboys that this is the place to be. You want the club that won't have you as a member." He goes on to recommend the rigorous likes of Manhattan's laptop-banning Café Grumpy and Zurich's La Stanza: "no comfy chairs, no Wi-Fi, no outlets, and coffee so ridiculously expensive that it functions as a tax on lingering."

Other Gladwell-approved writing cafés include Fernandez and Wells in London, Chez Prune in Paris (until, that is, it flooded with "Vassar girls with their Gitanes cigarettes and their Thomas Mann"), and "the back booths in the Swan Restaurant on Queen Street West" in Toronto. These far-flung spots align well with the other personal writing strategy Gladwell explained to Cowen: "I travel a lot. And that’s a really, really useful way of breaking out of bad intellectual habits, and to remind yourself about what the rest of the world is like." As a hard-writing habitué of the coffee shops of Seoul, I second Gladwell's advice, but I should note that following it won't necessarily get you to his level of popularity and acclaim; combine it with his new Masterclass on writing, though, and hey, who knows.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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