Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Today’s post appeared here originally.

This is one that I’m sure most of the writers on reddit have seen, but it’s worth a rehash nonetheless. The best place to start on Vonnegut’s shapes of stories, I think, is from the man himself, so here he is talking about his literary theory in video format.

If you don’t like to watch videos (I don’t either, but you should watch this one. It’s short, and he’s a great speaker.), you can check out this infographic with the same information.

Kurt Vonnegut's shapes of stories

Here I’d like to add something that only comes up in the comments of the original /r/writing self post, thanks to /u/kyle_albasi. That is the conclusion of the above talk, found in Vonnegut’s almost memoir A Man Without a Country, where Vonnegut says:

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we known so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die-God forbid- I would like to go to heaven and ask somebody in charge up there ‘Hey! What was the good news and what was the bad news?!

Next, I’ll leave you with Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing. For everyone who hates the structures, models, and rules I’ve been posting, I think it’s especially important to pay attention to Vonnegut’s addendum after rule eight. Here they are:

Kurt Vonnegut created some of the most outrageously memorable novels of our time, such as Cat’s CradleBreakfast Of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His work is a mesh of contradictions: both science fiction and literary, dark and funny, classic and counter-culture, warm-blooded and very cool. And it’s all completely unique.

With his customary wisdom and wit, Vonnegut put forth 8 basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101:

  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.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box.

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a PDF with a set of eight other rules from Vonnegut on how to write in style.

I hope this was of some assistance. Thanks for joining us, and see you again next Thursday with more writing tips.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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2 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and 8 Basics of Creative Writing”

    1. Listening to Vonnegut speak in that lecture, I can see why they would love it. He’s as funny a speaker as he is a writer.

      I’ll be sure to check out your blog, and thanks for following along on mine.

      Have a great day.

      Liked by 1 person

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