As most of you will already know, these are Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing short stories:
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.
Seven of these rules for writing short stories are pretty easy to agree with. They make sense and although they may not be as straightforward to employ as the list might make it seem, they’re probably worth pursuing. And even if you choose to do it differently, you can still understand what he meant.
But number eight is an odd thing to say, and one I’ve never really understood. So I'd like to take a closer look at it.
Vonnegut was of course a great writer, but also rarely gave a straight answer to a straight question. I’m sure he was well aware of what he was saying and how it might be interpreted. He also stated that great writers were apt to break all of these rules, except for number one.
But, the heck with suspense?
Suspense is that part of the story that makes you want to continue reading, to want to know what happens next. Why would that be seen as a bad thing?
Possibly he means that you should avoid the long preamble building up to the main substance of the story (the suspense of finding out what the story is about), and get to the conflict, which is the suspense of finding out who will get what they want, i.e. get on with it.
But even then, the idea that the reader should have such a complete understanding of events that they could ‘finish the story by themselves’, that seems very counterintuitive to my way of thinking.
Vonnegut was very pro-plot. He wanted a story that went somewhere. As he said:
“When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are ... And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It is the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.”
My assumption of what he means by:
"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."
Is that the reader should know who to root for and what they’re after. They could ‘finish the story for themselves’ just means they know Indy will find the Ark of the Covenant, or that James Bond will stop the bomb from going off.
Know who the story is about and what it is they want. That's what I think he meant.
It should also be remembered that Vonnegut made a habit of saying things others wouldn’t (even if they thought it), often to the chagrin of those around him. Usually with tongue firmly in cheek. He is after all the man who said :
There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.
What do you think he meant by Rule no.8?