In my last post on the short (story) road to the novel, I exhorted you to give the short story a try. I am a glutton for short stories and I guess my encouragement was a little coloured by my appetite. It hardly seems fair to nudge you on to a path without a map, so let me introduce you to Kurt Vonnegut and his eight rules for writing a short story.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 -2007) is known to most as the author of the cult classic Slaughterhouse Five, his contribution to short stories is often eclipsed by the success of his work in the long form. Having written more than 120 short stories, he distilled his experience into 8 simple rules.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This is critical in fiction of any form, more so for the short story. 500 to 600 page novels have become the order of the day and sadly I can easily think of how those books could have been at least 50 pages shorter. Don’t waste the reader’s time.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
It’s so true in the reality shows on TV today. All you need is one person who hooks you, and have you noticed how quickly you lose interest or forget to TiVo the same show once that contestant is no longer part of the proceedings. It’s true of fiction too. Authors love the creative halo but the truth is there are only so many plots, what hooks the reader is the character to root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
The most common problem and tell-tale sign of amateur writing is ‘characters galore’ who serve no purpose. In a short story it is suicide.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
This is the golden rule of screenwriting and is extremely important for fiction of any form, especially the short story.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
The closer you start to the main event the better the tension. Also short stories often cannot accommodate major story or character arcs.
- 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.
Sometimes as a writer you just want your sweet heroine to escape unscathed or that the innocent kid is able to outrun the wolf, but that’s death for fiction. Remember, every threat that is neutralised also neutralises the tension in your story and you must quickly find a new threat.
- 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.
Not everyone loves a happily ever after, not everyone enjoys the thrills of a manhunt or finds stimulation in analysing a crime. Don’t mix genres or add stock characters and events to get more people to like your writing.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.
That’s pretty detailed advice and I am not very sure that it’s a good idea, but hey, it’s a road map, take a detour if you don’t like where it leads.
While examples of exceptions to these rules abound, they do provide a certain sense of direction. What’s really cool is that these rules can apply to fiction in the long form and even to screenplays.
If nothing else, these rules should be one less reason to put off writing.