Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Short Story Writers

I first encountered Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. when it was published a decade ago. It collects his short stories that didn’t make the cut for Welcome to the Monkey House. Most were originally published in magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post, back in the enviable days when writers could work through an apprenticeship by crafting short stores.

Having already read almost everything by Vonnegut, I devoured these previously lost stories, comforted by the fact that some of the cracks in the plaster showed. These aren’t the best stories. Even great talent needs time to develop, but the stories in some way showed how one might set off on such a path.

Something in those stories must have stuck with me through the years since. I’ve been working on an entirely new story, and feeling a bit lost. It’s a different sort of tale from those that normally come to me, and reminds me of the ideas that Vonnegut explored. I’ve been hankering to go back and reread Bagombo Snuff Box, which I borrowed at the time so would need to track down a fresh copy.

In the process, I came across his rules for short story writers. It’s amazing these aren’t more well known. Here’s a video of Vonnegut reading his advice, which almost makes the accompanying montage worth watching:

And here they are written out so they’ll stick in my head:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that 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.
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 a 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 like the last one in particular. (I’ve been a sadist for ages now.) One of the things I keep coming back to with my writing is clarity. It should be crystal clear to the reader each step of the way what’s going on, and for the most part why it’s all happening.


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