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Kurt Vonnegut?s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction


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Eight rules for writing fiction:

  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. Now 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.

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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. Now 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.

Let's give that a try. :icon_geek:

Greg was a gay teen, who had seen all his acquaintances get coupled up, and he sorely missed this for himself. Now, just as he was going to his first dance, on a blind date no less, his car was starting to act strangely, moving from side to side, almost completely out of control. At the next sharp bend, Greg lost his final bit of control, and his car plummeted into the ravine, a wayward tree impaling him through the throat. The end.

What do you think? Did it work for you?

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Let's give that a try. :icon_geek:

Greg was a gay teen, who had seen all his acquaintances get coupled up, and he sorely missed this for himself. Now, just as he was going to his first dance, on a blind date no less, his car was starting to act strangely, moving from side to side, almost completely out of control. At the next sharp bend, Greg lost his final bit of control, and his car plummeted into the ravine, a wayward tree impaling him through the throat. The end.

What do you think? Did it work for you?

It's a tragedy isn't it?

...No sex either... :doze:

A nice variation on the deep throat theme though. :bunny:

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I agree with most of what Vonnegut says, particularly in not starting scenes at the beginning. I see a lot of bad amateur fiction that starts at the beginning, with the hero waking up or eating breakfast. In film, it's always better to cut to the chase and start the scene in the middle.

But I'm not sure I agree with point #8. Sometimes, holding back information -- or at least limiting how much the hero knows -- can be a good source of conflict. Hell, it's the essance of mystery and horror fiction. If the hero knows all the secrets, there's no suspense.

Trab's facetious example doesn't work for me, since I don't have a reason to root for this character. The character would have to demonstrate to me that he's brave, noble, and smart enough for me to want to like him or at least empathize with him. Plus, it's wordy and doesn't establish mood or time, nor does it grab me with the first sentence. (No insult intended, BTW.)

I can see a way to tell that story as Flash Fiction, especially through internal thoughts and dialog. But, I gotta get back to my own writing (which I've put off for awhile).

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Let's give that a try. :icon_geek:

Greg was a gay teen, who had seen all his acquaintances get coupled up, and he sorely missed this for himself. Now, just as he was going to his first dance, on a blind date no less, his car was starting to act strangely, moving from side to side, almost completely out of control. At the next sharp bend, Greg lost his final bit of control, and his car plummeted into the ravine, a wayward tree impaling him through the throat. The end.

What do you think? Did it work for you?

But we didn't learn anything about Greg's character!

Oh, I almost forgot. I have a title for your story: Greg Dies at the End. :doze:

Colin :bunny:

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But we didn't learn anything about Greg's character!

Oh, I almost forgot. I have a title for your story: Greg Dies at the End. :bunny:

Colin :icon_geek:

Greg's a gay teen. What more do you need to know? :doze:

I think a better title is "Greg gets it in the Throat."

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Too WORDY? OMG. Not enough character development and too wordy. You DO realize I was poking fun at the 8 rules, right?

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Okay, okay. Let's try it again.

Greg, an oft bullied gay teen, had seen all his acquaintances at school and from the hospice society where he volunteered get coupled up. Lonely nearly beyond tolerance, only the smiles he brought to the dying relieved his pain. Unbelievably, someone had arranged a blind date for him, and now, just as he was on his way, his car started swerving erratically. At the next sharp bend, Greg lost his final bit of control, and his car plummeted into the ravine, a wayward tree branch imploding the driver-side window and impaling him through the throat.

"Eugenics Hospice Society? I'm sorry to inform you that one of your volunteers, a Greg Black, recently died in a car accident. However, the morning of the accident he had his parents change beneficiaries to his life insurance, and your society will be receiving the full payout after funeral expenses."

I know it is a bit more wordy, but now you can see some of his character, and I've added a bit of mystery, leaving the reader hopefully wanting more. Okay, guys and gals, I've just been clowning around with this, as I'm pretty sure you know. I just wanted to point out that rules, if followed blindly, can lead to severe 'issues', as can completely ignoring them. It is how you deal with them creatively that is the essence of good writing.

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Lonely nearly beyond tolerance, only the smiles he brought to the dying relieved his pain.

That has to go down as one of the great lines.

Expect to read it shortly in more than one story.

See it in a movie in a cinema near you, coming soon.

A truly wonderful moment in literature.

Good work Trab.

:icon_geek:

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Okay, guys and gals, I've just been clowning around with this, as I'm pretty sure you know. I just wanted to point out that rules, if followed blindly, can lead to severe 'issues', as can completely ignoring them. It is how you deal with them creatively that is the essence of good writing.

I'm so glad to see you say that, Trab. We keep seeing threads here dealing with the rules that have to be followed to write anything that's good. They seem to focus on don'ts rather than do's, and if we were to allow them great moment, I think what they'd basically do is stymie our creativity.

Your brief stab at following the rules is excellent in showing the effect of writing by the rules. It was a terrible piece of wriitng. It had nothing in it to engage the reader. We didn't care about this boy, or the events, and weren't in the least affected by his demise. The story was nothing. And as you say, it followed the rules.

I don't think creativity, I don't think great writing, is about following rules. I think they can get in the way of writing an arresting, a gripping story. If we write trying to following them, if we check every sentence as we write it to see that we're not breaking some rule, I can't imagine ever getting anything down on paper. And if we do, it may very well read like the drab piece of boring tripe that inspired this.

And before everyone jumps down my throat--Pec, are you out there?--I realize that certain conventions should in the main be followed, that there are indeed don'ts that are appropriate to follow and do's that improve ones writing. But I also don't think we can concentrate on these things while trying to create a story. I think doing so limits our creativity. Editing, rehashing, reviewing, critiquing, those are the places to discover if some rule was broken that shouldnt' have been, that something has to be fixed, and in fixing it, you just happen to be find you're now in compliance with some rule. But, even then, if the story works better leaving the rule broken, then I say, leave it broken.

At the very least you'll be doing it consciously, and it'll be your decision.

Cole

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I know it is a bit more wordy, but now you can see some of his character, and I've added a bit of mystery, leaving the reader hopefully wanting more.

Naaa, didn't grab me.

Re-read my comments and note my inclusion of the word facetious.

I never said that Vonnegut listed all the rules, nor did I say every story had to follow all the rules. No question, a bad story can still follow most of the rules and still be bad.

But there's always the rule that says, "the story has to engage the imagination of the reader and keep them wanting to read more." That's the hard one, because there's no magic formula for it.

It's like constructing a building or making a painting: you can follow all the technical rules and still wind up with something ugly. At least by paying attention to the rules, though, you have a fighting chance of creating something halfway decent, if not good.

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I don't think creativity, I don't think great writing, is about following rules. I think they can get in the way of writing an arresting, a gripping story.

I disagree to a point. If the writer doesn't follow the normal rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization, it'll drive me away.

Show me a story in all lower case, with run-on sentences, cases that don't agree, etc., I'll run screaming from the room.

There are some fundamental rules the writer has to follow. I also don't believe many of the writers on the net (thee and me included) have the talent to break the rules consistently and still create a good story. I think there are some really great writers out there who occasionally manage to do it, but even then, it's not always satisfying.

Look at the Cliche discussion elsewhere as a good example. You gotta admit: a story that opens with an alarm going off is grating. But there's a way to twist the cliche so it's not horrendous. That's all I'm asking for.

And I agree, it's theoretically possible to follow a story that adheres to the rules, but is still a bad story. But the opposite is also true: I don't think there's a good story that deliberately breaks every rule. Show me one, and I'll print it out and eat it.

At its core, the story has to have characters you believe in, characters with flaws, believable situations, surprises and unexpected twists, and a plot that moves logically from point A to point B. I can accept breaking some of the rules as long as it does all of these positive things. Breaking the rules need not be a capitol offense; sometimes, it's like going 5MPH over the speed limit.

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I basically agree with you, Pecman. I was really making a different point. Yes, if you ignore rules of grammar and voice and continuity and basic stuff like that, you can end up with such a mish-mash that no one will like it.

I guess I didn't make myself clear enough, because what I meant was, you can't let yourself get bogged down by trying to comply with all the rules that have been floating around here the past few days. I expect the writers here to know and follow the basic rules of writing in Engish. They do, or they wouldn't be posting here. That wasn't what I was saying, though I probably didn't emphasize it. I was more talking about the rules regarding cliches, or writing a gay story.

You have to be a terribly good writer to break the basic rules. I can think of one book that sticks in my mind as an example of that being successfully done. Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, broke any and all existing rules about time-line writing. That book seemed to have been written as a normal story, and then he dropped the chapters while walking down stairs, picked them up entirely unsorted and shipped them off to the publsiher. So there was no time continuity at all, and yet the story worked. Riotously funny, too.

I don't think many people could get away with that.

C

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Ah, great minds think alike. I was mulling over which bestsellers might have broken the rules, and Catch 22 (as well as Slaughterhouse 5) were two I could think of. The structure was all over the place, they did flash-forwards and flashbacks, just wacky stuff. But Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut are much better writers than we are.

BTW, I'm not saying I like either book -- I have problems with both of them -- but I can't deny they're examples of good writing.

I'm glad we at least agree there are some rules you can't break. I'm real big on structure, and I think this is one of the hardest things for people to learn. Some of it has to be something you have to understand innately, and the other half boils down to common sense -- again, the story progressing from point A to point B. I think of writing novels as a little bit of a chess game: a character does something in chapter 2, and it has repercussions in chapter 5. Somebody dies in chapter 6, and there's guilt in chapter 7, and justice (or revenge) in chapter 8.

At the same time, I readily admit a lot of this has to be organic, or it becomes too contrived and over-planned. That's a case of following the rules too stringently. I think you can add a very important last rule for fiction: there has to be a degree of fun and entertainment, for both the writer and the reader. Without that, to me, it's not a satisfying story.

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Maybe I'm a bit of a bomb-thrower, but I'm not very comfortable with the word 'rules.' I think of such things as Vonnegut's 8 and S. King's statement about 'would, should and could are not your friends' as advise or guidelines. The only 'rule' that I accept as golden in storywriting is "Show, don't tell," which is actually where Trab's example got into trouble.

cheers!

aj

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