Sunday 10 July 2011

What the hell is up with no.8?

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?


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I'm going to have to try to write some short stories using these rules. Thanks for posting great writing advice again moody.

dolorah said...

I've often critiqued stories that keep the reader in the dark with a crucial bit of info nearly all the way tothe end of the story. It is evident something is motivating the character to act/think in this specific manner, but the author deliberately keeps it from the reader. Consistent hints are dropped, then at the end of the climax, the info is revealed that saves the day.

That is what I think rule #8 is referring to; that need to keep a secret until it can be exploded like a bomb. Totally annoying; the method feels to me as if the author doesn't trust the reader to "get the story plot" unless the reader is led through every step of the process.

Of course the reader knows the hero will triumph in the end; what makes it an interesting journey is all the pitfalls that is encountered, and how the hero overcomes them. Well, thats what I read a book for, anyway.


Brent Wescott said...

I've never seen these "rules" before. Can I ask for your source? I'm curious to read more on Vonnegut's thoughts on writing. It seems important to note the "as soon as possible" phrase in #8. I don't think he's saying give away the ending, but a reader does want to know about a character and the motivation behind actions.

And I love the part about cockroaches eating the ending.

Building Castles on the Beach

Sylvia said...

I think he speaks about motivation for actions, I often feel so cheated when you have to guess about why a character acts a certain way.

Carol said...

I would definitely follow the first seven rules, but #8 . . . yeah, I'm going to have to agree with your interpretation for #8.

Sophia said...

I interpret #8 as instead of withholding the deep dark secret until even the most dense reader figures out that something is up, the suspense should come from the reader knowing that the MC's love interest is also their sibling, or knowing that the bad guy is in the closest. It's not a case of having no suspense so much as not relying on the unknown to provide suspense. Just because the reader has a 'complete understanding of what is going on, where and why', it doesn't mean the characters do.

Sophia said...


Nas said...

Thanks for this reminder post of rules. I'm going to print this off for future reference!

Sarah McCabe said...

It seems to me he is speaking against false suspense or suspense that is created by the author holding back information from the reader. I think he is dead on, because as a reader nothing frustrates me more than not knowing what the heck is going on because the author is being intentionally vague or confusing.

F said...

There's a tendency I see in poor storytelling to cling to information dearly and keep it away from the reader as a "hook." The idea being that the reader wants to know, so badly, what this precious hook is, that they'll keep reading. It usually fails, because most of the time it's annoying and confusing and makes me, the reader, feel cheated.

I think what it boils down to is this:

It is not interesting for the writer to conceal things from the reader.

It is interesting when characters conceal things from each other.

Munk said...

Number 8 is a trick, it's just gotta be. Don't trust him, he's up to no good.

Mark Kerstetter said...

They could finish the story themselves, but everyone's book would be different. Like this: in a story, let bad stuff happen right away, then very quickly get worse. If the strength of the writing won't hold you, why would you plod on to the end just to have that all important carrot in the plot revealed? i would have lost my appetite long before. I would read Vonnegut just to see how he places the word "yes". And I agree with the others who have said that there's a big difference between the reader knowing what's going on and the characters being in the dark.

Angela Cothran said...

I can't believe he's serious. If I don't try and interpret and just go strictly off what he said--I think he is giving us a rule to break. To heck with suspense? Come on.

E. M. Prokop said...

I came across an earlier version of Vonnegut's writing rules...there's only seven in this list. They are, briefly:
1. Find a subject you care about
2. Do not ramble, though
3. Keep it simple
4. Have guts to cut
5. Sound like yourself
6. Say what you mean
7. Pity the readers

I admire Vonnegut,I can't say for sure what he meant by to hell with suspense, but I think he meant that the reader would know the characters so thoroughly that they would know how they would react to situations and confrontations.
By saying that we lack a dependable mass of readers I think he meant how the average person does not want anything more than a nice love story, or something with a vampire in it...many will not, or cannot invest the time and emotion into reading a work that requires something of them..I don't know..I do know that this has made me want to read Vonnegut again, with more attention to his rules as I'm reading! Thanks for this post..lots to learn, that's for sure!

LisaAnn said...

I'm so glad you found my blog, and I'm looking forward to exploring yours some more. I can't seem to find your Follower button, though; it keeps loading as a blank space. Is there another way I can follow you?

MC said...

Here's my guess for #8: It's annoying when the writer holds back information. For example, those murder mysteries where the murderer ends up being none of the suspects the writer teased you with but some random Joe Bob that pops up in the last few pages. Point is you should lay everything out, not to spoil the ending, but when the ending is read all the pieces come together and the reader smacks themselves on the forehead and say, “Why didn't I think of that". Don't have surprise endings pop out of the closet.

Christa Desir said...

I love Vonnegut so very much. And I am sure he didn't really mean number 8 in the way it seems. Look at "Welcome to the Monkey House"--suspense! But I get the idea that you shouldn't leave the readers dangling in an annoying way like MC mentions above. There is a difference between tension and suspense.

mooderino said...

@Michael – I think they’re also applicable to novels.
@Donna – I think you’re probably right. He puts it in a very extreme way though.
@Brent – it appeared in his short story collection Bogombo Snuff Box, in the introduction. He talks a bit about no.7 and a little bit about no.8, where he says you should allow the reader to play along with the game. Clear?
@Sylvia – I do think some writers pull it off, but most i would say don’t.
@Carol – I’m undecided about 8, trying to work out what it means first.
@Sophia – “Just because the reader has a 'complete understanding of what is going on, where and why', it doesn't mean the characters do.” That’s the best explanation so far, thanks very much for that, makes a lot of sense.

mooderino said...

@Nas – stick where you can see it!
@Sarah – I definitely think he means that, but he also seems to be against suspense altogether (although I doubt that’s what he really means).
@Frankie – I agree with you. It becomes tricky when you’re writing in first person pov though. I wonder what he thought of that. Or of mystery stories.
@Munk – of course, it’s all an elaborate ruse!
@Mark – indeed.
@Angie – I think he was smart enough to know what he was saying, I’m just not sure I am.
@Eve – if you feel like reading more Vonnegut, then that was probably his plan all along, the wily old goat.
@LisaAnn – bloggers been messing with my connect widget again. I swear I’d have a thousand followers by now if it wasn’t for all the hipsters stuck in their beanbag chairs at Google HQ. I think you can still follow by clicking on the tool par right at the top of the page. Otherwise we’ll just have to wait until they finish their mocha lattes with marshmallows and a cinnamon twist.
@MC – Possible.
@Christa – Well, if I ever run into a genuine medium I know exactly who I want to contact and what question to ask him.

Sultan said...

I think he meant that he preferred that style. I think his guidelines are interesting but that writing is so individual one would be best advised to read his list with interest, and then experiment to find their own style and create their own rules.

nutschell said...

I agree with your interpretation of Rule 8. He must be talking about making sure that readers have a good idea of the story problem as soon as possible. I don't know about throwing suspense out the window. I always like stories that keep me at the edge of my seat.

Becca Puglisi said...

Well that was an eye-opener. I didn't expect to find advice like that on the list, lol. But I think you summed it up well. It also made me think of what McKee says in STORY about the Inciting Incident: that when the audience experiences it, it brings to their mind the Major Dramatic Question, which is How Will This Turn Out? I guess if you write that life-changing event well, the reader will automatically see a big showdown that has to occur--the character has to make a decision, or have a confrontation, etc. And they're immediately sucked in because they want to find out how it's going to play out.

No idea if this is what he had in mind, but it's what I thought of. This was an interesting question. Thanks for bringing it up!

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Rachael Harrie said...

He has some great rules, doesn't he, and they mostly apply to writing novels as well as short stories. I like Sophia's explanation as well (and many of the other commenters' too!).



Charmaine Clancy said...

I think he was on drugs.

Or... I like when thrillers and mysteries fill me in on the crime and all about the personalities involved. Stein also comments on this saying, 'if you show me a car crash you better let me get to know everything about the characters in the car first, otherwise I won't care.' (paraphrasing there). Usually even if you don't know which character committed a crime you do know the motivations, sometimes there's a link we don't see but it has all been foreshadowed. Can't claim to be an expert on Vonnegut's rules, I'm one of the few people who hated Slaughterhouse Five and didn't go on to try anything else from him.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Rebecca Bradley said...

You'd come a bit unstuck if you were following his rules while writing a suspense story.

Donna K. Weaver said...

But I love 6 and 7.

Interesting about the suggestion to info dump.

F said...


Vonnegut used first person a lot, didn't he? I think using a limited point of view is fair, and I think Vonnegut would find it fair. I think rule 8 is more directed at deliberately concealing things from the reader that should have been apparent within the constraints of the point of view.

I think he'd probably agree with P.D. James on the mystery stories:
5. Follow the "fair-play rule"
James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader. "By the end of the book, the reader should have been able to arrive at the real solution from clues inserted into the novel." Of course, she also admits that you can provide these clues with "deceptive cunning but essential fairness."


This is one of the things that I feel passionately about; the reader is not a "mark" to be outwitted or tricked by the writer. They should be treated with courtesy and respect, which means not asking them to spend money and time on a book contrived to make them feel stupid so that the author can feel clever. A lot of writers in the Land of the Unpublished seem to treat readers as the opposition. I don't know why.

John Wiswell said...

I guess I could grasp #8 if you were advising a complete amateur writer who didn't know what they were doing yet. Most hard rules for writing feel invented by tried teachers and editors. Surely there are innumerable cases where withholding some sort of information is good for the story. What if it's what the character wants in #3? Should we give up the ghost on the first page anyway?

Suze said...

My first question would be, when did Vonnegut write this? As he was no doubt writing out of a culture that is quite different from ours, given the extraordinarily-compressed rate of social change in the last decade. I think if you were able to pose your question to him, now, he'd be likely to say the very definition of suspense has accumulated connotations heretofore unanticipated as a result of the immediate gratification endemic to our hyperconnected culture.

Either that or he'd say, relax old boy. There's no divine directive in these ramblings. Take what you will and go with your gut on the rest.

Two cents.

Unknown said...

Confused readers are readers who won't read on. There's a difference between making readers ask the questions that help them build an appropriate understanding of the story - and questions that are basically just reiterations of "huh?" It's far too easy for authors to think they're creating suspense when really they're creating confusion.

mooderino said...

@Laoch - I know he taught various classes and found his students to be poorly disciplined, perhaps this was a way to bring them to heel a bit.

@nutschell - I'm thinking maybe he just want to get priorities in the righ torder, sort out what's happening before being all mysterious.

@Becca - it's always thrown me a bit. If I died before i finished my story I'd much rather the readers could never figure out what I had in mind. He says that would be unfair on the readers, i say good!

@Rachel - thanks. I htought Sophia's one made a lot of sense.

@Charmaine - he does have quite an odd style, not one anyone's tried to emulate.

mooderino said...

@Rebecca - but surely he would know that, so why would he say it (except to mess with us). I'm not sure he was entirely enamoured of his fellow human beings.

@Donna - I'm not sure he would see quite that way. Or maybe he would.

@Frankie - I think a lot of writers in the LotU treat readers like prospective dates they want to reject before they get rejected.

@John - according to Kurt, yes.

@Suze - I think he would say something along teh lien of, Ho hum, so it goes.

@KM - then again if you're a published writer with a strong following you can take all sorts of liberties and the readers hang in there, hoping it will all make sense. Hoping, and hoping...

Lorena said...

I don't get it, either. But I love the first seven rules. I think they also apply to novels.

Margo Berendsen said...

Ha, I like that last quote about the lack of dependable readers!!!

These are 8 great rules, I'm glad you shared them (might even prompt me to revisit my short stories) (also might explain why I don't like most short stories. So many feel like a waste of time). I think your analysis of that last one is correct. My take on it is: if you are too vague, don't spell stuff out clearly, you're wasting your readers time.

Anonymous said...

My take on this is that Kurt was a genius, but, alas, he was also a fucking lunatic! :-D however, this is not a bad thing. Some of the best writers, in my opinion, anyway, have dealt with or are dealing with some sort of mental illness.

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