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:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.