Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to write a good short story

From Kurt Vonnegut’s introduction to his short story anthology, Bagombo Snuff Box, 8 tips on how to write a good short story.

  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.

Notable Replies

  1. I remember reading that he gave this advice to a student at Smith College, only it was more specific. He suggested making the mother of a character insane. It was showing without telling--I got the point he was trying to make.

  2. Those all seem like pretty good tips - but not universal. It's not hard to find examples of great writing that follow different rules.

  3. It's almost as if writing takes talent and not just a matter of following rules,,,

  4. 9) Poo tee weet

  5. No1 says:

    Dick and Mary

    Dick was thirsty sitting in this bar, thinking about how Mary had decided it was his fault. He wanted to prove how it wasn't his fault, but to phone her, that would be admitting defeat. "Barman, water, please" he loquated. Mary just needs to be stronger and not let her awful right wing family dictate terms to her, and just be real. I know I am the one who is real in her life. The only one.

    Dick had been so misunderstood all his life. Genuinely caring, but too intelligent, too strong inside, to reveal how beautiful his heart really was.

    As he clicked on 'dial Mary' a psycho came into the bar and chopped one of Dick's legs off. Everyone in the place was horrified and there was general chaos, and someone phoned the emergency services and Dick didn't get his water.

    The phone was on, so Mary heard the horror that unfolded, and relented, because really, she did want Dick. She had just been in denial about it. She had always wanted a man like Dick, but her fears about leaving her fake life behind had stopped her.

    The psycho had issues about his mother, that was why he had chopped Dick's leg off, having escaped from a nearby secure unit, and had seen Dick from behind who happened to look like his mother did when he was five.

    Dick had been misjudged badly by Mary. She realized this, and immediately used the internet to figure out his location, or which hospital he was being taken to.

    After all the injustices in his life, Dick felt a sense of contentment and peace, which was not necessarily anything to do with the morphine drip, when Mary confessed she had been the one that was wrong all along, and vowed undying devotion to him, by his bedside, in the hospital.

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