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

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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”

by | Permalink | Comments (33) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (33)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.