What’s a Short Story to Kurt Vonnegut? – A short and impractical guide for creative writers
October 28, 2014
by: S. Cramer Lewis
Why do we write stories? To even begin approaching such a big question we have to consider why we communicate with one another in the first place—why is it that we have language at all? The most obvious answer carries with it a heavy load of additional subjects and questions and subjects within those questions and questions within those subjects, yikes. Simply, language exists because people want to communicate with one another.
The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut—who eked out a living during the 1950s selling stories to periodicals thanks to a booming short story market—describes short stories sentimentally, as tools humans use to enjoy and share in meditative escapes compared to “Buddhist catnaps.” In his brief introduction to a collection of early short stories entitled Bangombo Snuff Box, Vonnegut teases out a wonderful image of the purpose of stories for people—his answer to that pesky question of why we do this weird story thing with language. Additionally, for all you aspiring creative writers looking to improve, Vonnegut also breaks down his rules for writing short fiction.
Now, everyone get your pencils ready because rule number one in Vonnegut’s creative writing crash course is a kicker:
- Use the time of a total stranger in a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Simple enough, right? This rule makes practical sense for creative writers looking for a start. It also reveals an important piece of Vonnegut’s idea about the point of stories. If stories should make other people feel a certain way, then stories exist for human contact, for communication, and they are meant to do something for people—an idea well worth considering throughout the entire creative writing process. From the birth of an idea to the smallest detail of plot or dialogue, the short story writer should strive to cause an effect.
Vonnegut speaks charmingly to this idea that stories should affect readers. He paints a picture of short stories as having the sort of effects on a human “closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation,” citing his own experience with short fiction during the great depression.
You hear that writers? In case you weren’t taking your craft seriously before, it’s your job not just to affect people, but also to affect people in a good way. You have to lead the meditation session that gets people through the day or that provides their much-needed ten-minute escape from whatever is going on in their lives.
Drumroll please, as promised, here are Vonnegut’s magic lamps—excuse me—rules, his magic rules for short fiction (and you already know number one!)
- 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. 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.
- 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.
Wait! Before you rush off now to mold these rules into the greatest short story ever written, you should know that directly following this list of rules, Vonnegut says that most great writers tend to break every rule except for one—the first one, so it goes.
Aspiring storytellers, you already knew coming in that your job was to make someone feel something. So basically, this article doesn’t help you at all except maybe for the rules, but they weren’t explained well and some of them didn’t seem right. If you’re currently feeling swamped by this list, let me advise you take another look. Though several of them are overreaching and pertain to style, many (like numbers two, three, four, & six) have great potential for practical application depending on what you’re working on.
Rules one, seven and eight work cooperatively to generate an image of the short story as a shared playing field between the words of the author and the consciousness of the reader.
Take for example the great wall of China; many don’t realize that this marvel of human ingenuity was erected as a message from the Tralfamadorians, an alien race of robots who wanted to encourage a stranded pilot with a simple and positive message which reads when viewed from above: “Be patient. We haven’t forgotten about you.” The authors of the message, Tralfamadorians who coerced mankind to generate the multipurpose great wall, wanted simply to please one person, their stranded pilot, but the message positively affected humanity.
Just as language attempts to transcend the blank space between our consciousness, and poetry attempts to transcend the bounds of language, short stories also invite humans to engage in new and interesting ways. Like all forms of art, they let us know that we are not alone and that we can be good. Beyond that, According to Mr. Vonnegut, you can enter into this new plane of human interaction when you take seriously this task and engage in it by writing with the sincere intention to please just one person with the loveliness of a meditative catnap for their mind.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999. Print.
Images from brainpickings.org, huffingtonpost.com, ehow.com, and saturdayeveningpost.com