I have enjoyed and admired Kurt Vonnegut’s stories and novels since I was a teenager. I remember Breakfast of Champions as perhaps the funniest, laugh-out-loud book I’ve ever read.
I saw Vonnegut give a talk to a large crowd of (mostly) college students in San Diego around 1984 or so. Most of what he said is gone from my memory, but a couple of things have stuck with me. One was when he said that the number of people in the U.S. making their living writing fiction is smaller than the number of major league professional baseball players.
The other was a bit of advice for budding writers. He asked for a show of hands of those in the audience who were working on novels or stories themselves. A large portion of the audience raised their hands. Then he asked how many of those writers were having trouble with their story. Most of the same hands went up.
Vonnegut said, “Okay. Without even reading your story, I’m going to tell you how to fix it.” He closed his eyes and put his hand to his head as if he were tapping into psychic powers, and said “I see it… I see it… Throw away the first ten pages! Your readers will dip one toe into your story and, ZOOM, they’ll be a mile down the track and wondering what hit them!” (Or words to that effect.)
Without further ado, here are Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a good 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.
I’ll end with a couple of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”