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:

Kurt Von­negut Gives Advice to Aspir­ing Writ­ers in a 1991 TV Inter­view

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • HappyHound says:

    Maybe he should have tak­en his own advice

  • Joe R Taylor says:

    Nev­er sold a short sto­ry, but plen­ty of epi­grams and poems.

  • Steven says:

    Von­negut wrote some excel­lent short sto­ries. A few of them were dry but almost every sto­ry in “Wel­come to the Mon­key House” was gold. Over­all I don’t think he was as good of a short sto­ry writer as Ray Brad­bury. Brad­bury real­ly made you feel things. Brad­bury made me cry on numer­ous occa­sions. I don’t think Von­negut ever made me cry but he did make me laugh.

  • Edward Schwarz says:

    This is fraud­u­lent. False quotes. Not Kurts voice in the vid. I’ve read all of his nov­els and short sto­ries and their style does not match up with these sup­posed writ­ing tips. NO SUSPENSE?! <–BS Read­er able to fin­ish the sto­ry them­selves?! <—BS Start close to the end?!<–BS

  • xavier says:

    just fin­ished slaugh­ter­house five, very read­able, actu­al­ly my first von­negut book, def­i­nite­ly won’t be my last; so it goes.…

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