Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 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.” And, in a mas­ter’s the­sis reject­ed by The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, he made the tan­ta­liz­ing argu­ment that “sto­ries have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a giv­en society’s sto­ries is at least as inter­est­ing as the shape of its pots or spear­heads.” In this brief video, Von­negut offers eight essen­tial 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.”

Now if you want to learn to write with style, that’s anoth­er sto­ry. And Von­negut has advice on that too here.

via Brain­Pick­ings

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Wear Sun­screen”: The Sto­ry Behind the Com­mence­ment Speech That Kurt Von­negut Nev­er Gave

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

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Von­negut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

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Comments (33)
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  • eleanor scott says:

    How much will I have to pay to get start­ed with a writ­ing coach?

  • Larry Littany Litt says:

    Hi Eleanor,

    First of all what do you expect a writ­ing coach to do for you? Per­haps you need an edi­tor. Defin­ing what you need to com­plete mss is easy if you have a goal. If not then you can tread water until it ices over.

    We can talk more if you like.

  • Brian Finn says:

    Is this in reply to my pre­vi­ous?

  • Brian Finn says:

    Retired for five years now. Pur­sued a series of point­less hob­bies, fol­lowed by impos­si­ble activ­i­ties includ­ing, moun­tain climb­ing. Now, being sev­en­ty five, the effort upset my enlarged prostate, and did­n’t do my back any favours either.
    On read­ing your arti­cle on short sto­ry writ­ing, I was think­ing, am I too late? I await your reply with bat­ed breath. At my age the bat­ed bit should not be tak­en lit­er­al­ly.
    Hap­py new year to all,

  • Brian Finn says:

    I hear some writ­ers, espe­cial­ly crime writ­ers, pre­pare the end­ing of the
    sto­ry first. Is this the norm, or just pref­er­ence?

  • Mark says:

    Hi all,

    I’m a short sto­ry writer and nov­el­ist who would love to guide or help out any­one if need­ed. I’ve won some awards and worked on a wide vari­ety of writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­al­ly. Present­ly I am a free­lance busi­ness writer — resumes, Linkedin pro­files, bios, etc. Leave me a mes­sage here and I’ll get in touch.

  • Mark says:

    You’re not too late, Bri­an. You’re still alive and that is what counts.

  • Mohammedeö says:

    Hey Mark,I’d real­ly love your help and to get in con­tact with you.We can stay in con­tact through Facebook,Whatsapp or Email,whichever suits you best

  • Amanda Porter says:

    I am start­ing out but I don’t know where to start from? Can some­one help me with this prob­lem?

  • Anna says:

    Hey all,

    I’m like Bri­an, a 45 yr old wife & moth­er who has always dab­bled in writ­ing. I wrote my first short sto­ry when I was 8 yrs old. I’ve writ­ten sev­er­al short since then, but then I turned to poet­ry and that’s my true love. My short sto­ries and my poems are all “con­fes­sion­al”, and accord­ing to my son, quite depress­ing. I’ve always been afraid to allow any­one oth­er than my hus­band and chil­dren to read any­thing that I’ve writ­ten. My daugh­ter sug­gest­ed that I take my lit­tle “note­books of hon­esty” and have them print­ed so my fam­i­ly will always have a copy. Has any­one ever done that?

  • Areli Rivera says:

    Hey you guys im like an famous writer because i write sto­rys all the time and taught my son how to write a short sto­ry about the hang­ing gar­dens of baby­lon!!! I love your web­site

  • Terence Staines says:

    Inter­est­ing… The respons­es are more inter­est­ing, than the arti­cle. Amer­i­cans seem to think that they are capa­ble of doing any­thing they bloody-well like, giv­en enough time and resources — that every­one is capa­ble of being a world-class ath­lete, or an author, or a brain-sur­geon… Not so. Writ­ers have to be sto­ry­tellers, pure and sim­ple. If you don’t have a sto­ry to tell, you will only ever be a tech­ni­cal author, or admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant… Words drib­ble-out of writ­ers, like turds from dogs. They can’t help it, it’s a com­pul­sion. I would say that in order to write, you have to give-up all dreams of ever becom­ing famous (or even good), and just get into the habit of telling sto­ries. ‘Writer’s write’, to quote an old max­im. Just do it; let pos­ter­i­ty wor­ry about qual­i­ty or use­ful­ness! You should nev­er approach any branch of the arts with a desire to become laud­ed or rich, but mere­ly sat­is­fied.

  • Orial Meyer says:

    I am cur­rent­ly on tem­po­rary dis­abil­i­ty due to severe depres­sion. I have always want­ed to write. Thought of writ­ing about my life and depres­sion but to incor­po­rate humour into it too. Any sug­ges­tions would be wel­come. Thanks

  • Nikhil says:

    I think that is a fan­tas­tic idea. I always found it inter­est­ing when some­one made their fears/ bad times/ lows of life into some­thing cre­ative and inter­est­ing. And who knows, not only will it dis­tract you and give you some­thing chal­leng­ing and inter­est­ing to do, but you may also have a byprod­uct as an extra source of income and a fan fol­low­ing too (see Diary of a wimpy kid, the Won­der years.. heck even Walt Dis­ney with his fear of mice)!

  • g n ravishankar says:

    May 16, 2016
    4.05 p.m.

    I am 58 years, with a few chron­ic ill­ness­es, con­fined to my home. I am unable to go out and work, but I have to earn. I am tired, weak, been bat­tling depres­sion life long and now I am despon­dent too. I am think­ing of writ­ing short sto­ries, from the com­fort of my home, main­ly to earn my dai­ly bread, and but­ter if pos­si­ble. My Eng­lish is aver­age (Indi­an).

    Please let me have your opin­ion and advise.

    p.s. I have writ­ten about ten con­tents for smartlookguide.com on health. I find con­tent writ­ing bor­ing.

  • Jillian McGee says:

    You know, I came to this site due to my love for writ­ing as well as sto­ry­telling. I came because my friends want me to show what I can do at an open mic night, where I refuse to sing, or share my poems which tend to get peo­ple to wor­ry. I write a lot to be hon­est, but my sto­ries are often long and would­n’t count as a short sto­ry. So I came here so I could relearn how to write a short sto­ry to per­form. I read this but, then I looked down at the com­ments. You know, my thoughts may not mean much to you as I am only just going to be turn­ing 18 soon, how­ev­er, if you want to write, just do it. It takes me a thou­sand times before I am hap­py with it, heck, I am still work­ing on some of my sto­ries that I start­ed two years ago. Why? If I get tired of it, it won’t be fun. I write mul­ti­ple sto­ries at once and many times I scrap 70% of them. Don’t wor­ry about age as regard­less of it, you should be able to express your­self in any way you see fit.

  • g n ravishankar says:

    Thanks Jil­lian McGee June 7, 2016
    4.30 p.m.
    Your reply is very encour­ag­ing and moti­vat­ing.

    I WILL try my hand ( and des­tiny) at writ­ing.

  • Joseph omondi says:

    45 years young, lots of sto­ries to tell. I start­ed writ­ing 30 yrs ago not appre­ci­at­ing the cre­ativ­i­ty as I do now. I read what I record­ed in won­der!!! Is it pos­si­ble I con­tin­ue and make bet­ter?

  • Darryl says:

    In many cas­es, some of the great­est writ­ers write from end to begin­ning. There is no mir­a­cle for­mu­la here, it’s just that, going by the 3‑act struc­ture, Act 1 needs to know what hap­pens in Act 2 in order to be prop­er­ly writ­ten to set up what hap­pens in Act 2 so the pieces fit togeth­er seam­less­ly. By work­ing from end to begin­ning, the writer is able to trav­el in time, at least in the sto­ry, and see the future before he/she writes it. It’s not impos­si­ble, but is much eas­i­er to write how a wheel­chair bound cheer­leader and her best friend deals with the unex­pect­ed predica­ment if we par­a­lyze her in Act 1 when her best friend acci­den­tal­ly drops her dur­ing a rehearsal.

  • Darryl says:

    At least 2 char­ac­ters (Pro­tag­o­nist and Antag­o­nist) good guy/bad guy. Your pro­tag­o­nist must have a wor­thy goal and the antag­o­nist works to pre­vent him/her from reach­ing their goal. Start with an out­line and make each chap­ter sequen­tial scenes to tell the sto­ry. Take a look at some of your movie DVDs where the inside cov­er lists the var­i­ous scenes of the movie. If it were a book, each one of those scenes would be a chap­ter in the book. Your first chap­ter needs to start your sto­ry with the Incit­ing Inci­dent, which is the action that caus­es the sto­ry to hap­pen. For exam­ple, if it’s a mur­der mys­tery, the first chap­ter should be about the a mur­der. Have fun,


  • Maria Anthony says:

    Hi Mark
    Would­n’t mind your help from time to time with my short sto­ries. I live in England.Thank you kind­ly. Maria

  • Jay Nelson says:

    How can I get an hon­est cri­tique of my writ­ing? I’m an indus­tri­al painter and all my friends are beer swill­ing meat­heads so they can’t do it. Is there a place I can send my sto­ries to receive some input or cor­rec­tions?

  • MebelJeparaUkir.com says:

    Menarik sekali bagi saya untuk bela­jar den­gan serius cara mem­bu­at Cer­pen.

  • Seth says:

    I’ll take this advice with a grain of salt, con­sid­er­ing that half the sto­ries in Bagom­bo Snuff Box were sto­ries pub­lished in oth­er books and then man­gled by Von­negut to suit the times instead of leav­ing them the gems they were. I lit­er­al­ly threw the book across the room in dis­gust twice after read­ing his new ver­sions of two stories…and Von­negut is one of my favorite authors.

  • Bob says:

    Great writ­ers, like Von­negut don’t need advice. Only the novice needs advice, and gen­er­al­ly the novice remains a novice for the rest of his or her life.

  • Kilgore Trout says:

    You have to write a lot of bad sto­ries before you can write a good one. Works the same with songs.

  • Cindy says:

    Hi Mark, I’m just get­ting start­ed as a writer. Are you still open to con­nect­ing and men­tor­ing new writ­ers?

    Thank you,


  • Carl says:

    Write with is one of the most crit­i­cal steps of the writ­ing process and is prob­a­bly rel­e­vant to the first point. If you want to get your blood pump­ing and give it your best, you might want to write with pas­sion, and give it all you got. How do you do this? Make sure that you have the right mind­set when­ev­er you are writ­ing.
    Check this out How to Write a Book That Can Change the World
    Hope this will also help. Thank you.

  • Billy Pilgrim says:

    We will deeply miss you Kil­go­re Trout!.. If on your jour­ney through time and space you hap­pen upon Tralfamadore please stop by and say hul­lo..

  • Paul Tatara says:

    I’m a screen­writer — I’ve sold a cou­ple sad­ly un-pro­duced scripts — and I always start writ­ing with an open­ing scene and a final scene in mind. Then I can tell when I’m run­ning too far astray of the cen­tral con­cept with lengthy dia­logue, use­less tan­gents, etc. I rec­og­nize that I have to get back to the idea at hand because I have to hit that final tar­get. There’s as many dif­fer­ent ways to write as there are writ­ers, but that’s my approach.

  • albert says:

    Fic­tion refers to lit­er­ary works that are cre­at­ed from the imag­i­na­tion, rather than being based strict­ly on real events or facts. In fic­tion, authors invent char­ac­ters, set­tings, and plot­lines to tell a sto­ry.

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