Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story, with a Bonus Rule

Here are the rules, from Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction:

  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. Now 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.

Amid posted these rules on Cartoon Brew about a week ago with the suggestion that they made good rules for the makers of animated shorts. I think he’s right, and so as an aid to my latest Animation Mentor Short Film Production class, I want to deconstruct these rules, with an eye towards animated shorts.

First off, the caveats. Yes, all rules are made to be broken. Yes, you can find many fine short stories (and fine short films) that violate some of these rules (as Vonnegut points out himself). Yes, thinking too hard about ‘rules’ at the beginning of the creative process is deadly. All that said, I think these rules can provide a useful check against some of the typical excesses that I see in unsuccessful animated shorts.

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.   Pretty obvious, huh?  And a little intimidating.  How many times have we finished watching a short film and felt those paltry 30 or 60 seconds were flushed away?  It’s unfortunately pretty common.  I don’t think this means we have to pick epic subjects or create complex plots to avoid wasting the viewer’s time.  This rule doesn’t urge us to make shorts that are significant or complex or epic.  I think it simply says we need to dig deep and craft a short that actually engrosses the viewer. Engross the viewer, no matter how simple your subject matter, and the viewer won’t walk away feeling cheated.

 Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.  This is one a lot of people may quibble with, but I think it’s important.  We simply find it very difficult to connect with characters we don’t like or can’t identify with.  It’s tempting, especially on a short, to push the characters into extreme types, and end up making them all equally unsympathetic.

I think there’s a surprisingly simple solution to this most of the time — make your characters authentic.  The more authentic a character is, the more we can identify with them, or at least relate to them.  This applies even if that character needs to be a stereotype, whether they’re the village idiot, the angry drunk, the buxom bimbo, the heartless boss, the clueless parent, whatever.  Keep them in the realm of cliche and stereotype, and they remain two-dimensional.  Give them something that makes them real and authentic, and even though they’re still filling some archetypal role, they become interesting.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.   This is something I hear from acting teachers all the time — don’t start acting till you know what your character wants, even if that want isn’t in the script.  Whether it’s overt or not, every character should want something.  They want something from the other characters, they want something for themselves, they want something!  I often see secondary characters deployed like pawns on a chess board — they’re expendable, they’re only there to support to main pieces, and they have absolutely no depth.

As soon as a character wants something, you have an opening to give them actions instead of reaction, you have a chance to devise interesting secondary action for them, you have a chance to add a layer of complexity to your otherwise simple short.  That bank teller, that parking lot attendant, that anonymous guy in the waiting room, they all need to be real characters, and real characters want something.

Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.  Substitute ‘shot’ for ‘sentence’ and it works perfectly. In a feature, there is time for shots that are just simply beautiful, shots that help set the mood, shots that orient us to locale and environment.  But not in a short.  You have to do your exposition, set your mood, orient your audience while you’re move the story along and building your character arc.  There is no room for indulgence and waste in a short.

Start as close to the end as possible. I probably would have said, ‘Start in the middle,’ or ‘Start on action,’ but in thinking about it, I think ‘start as close to the end’ is better for a short.  This is one every short-film maker struggles with — handling exposition and revealing the backstory without devoting shots specifically to those goals.  The truth is, if you’re doing your job you don’t need nearly as much exposition as you think.  Embed the details and context within your shots, and trust your audience to figure things out as they watch.

When I was a kid, I loved comics, especially Marvel comics.  I rarely had the money to buy them myself, but every now and then my Mother would take pity on me and buy me a few.  In those days drug stores had spinner racks, and some stores would take the unsold comics, tear the covers off, and put three of them in a sealed plastic bag which would sell for about the price of a single new comic.  Money was tight, and three comics were better than one (plus there was the surprise element, since you had no idea what the middle comic was!), so I got my share of those packages.  Marvel loved doing two-part stories then, so I was often reading the cover-less, second half of a two-part story, with no clue what had happened in the previous issue.  Those were usually my best comics reading experiences.  I would usually read those issues several times, deducing what I’d missed, constructing the backstory in my mind as I let myself be absorbed in the images.

Years later, when I had my own money and the wherewithal, I sought out those missing issues, as well as the second halves with actual covers. Yeah, you know where I’m going with this.  It was always a disappointment reading the whole thing from start to finish.  I didn’t need the origin story or the set-up exposition.  Starting a story in the middle of the action, with the climax bearing down, is almost always going to be much more engrossing than taking twice as long to get to the same place.  We rarely need the beginning, or even much of the middle.

Be a sadist. Now 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.  I don’t think Vonnegut means that only cruel things should happen to your characters — you can only write so many stories about Job.  But something needs to happen to your characters, and if what happens is trivial, then your short will be trivial.

Your character wants something, and they’re thwarted in a major way, and they react.  That’s the soul of a short.  However, that doesn’t mean your character needs to be run over by a bus, or stricken with cancer.  The awful thing could be minor, but it cannot be minor within the context of the short.  A girl spills grape juice on her sweater.  Boring.  But an anxious girl, just out of braces and dressed up with her new cashmere sweater for her very first date, spills grape juice down her sweater just as her date arrives — now that might be perfectly interesting.

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. Simply put, don’t pander to the lowest common denominator.  You’re not making network television.  You’re pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into a short film.  And that ‘one person’ isn’t yourself.  You’re creating this short to entertain — remember rule 1.  Vonnegut stated that he wrote with his sister in mind as his audience, though he didn’t realize this until she had died.  You don’t need to pick that person you’re making your short for, but make it for someone, not for everyone.

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. I’m not sure about the reader being able to finish the story themselves, but I wholeheartedly agree that you need to give your viewers as much information as possible.

Holding back doesn’t create mystery, it creates confusion.  And this doesn’t mean insert long, expository shots, or adding narrative voiceover, or anything lame like that.  Just give your audience the information they need, and let them connect the dots.  And give them that information while something interesting is happening, like character being revealed or action being advanced.

Now, as a special bonus, read Kurt Vonnegut talking about his life and work in this wonderful interview from The Paris Review 32 years ago.  I adore the wit and specificity with which Vonnegut describes things that could be so mundane.  Here an excerpt where he’s describing the artillery piece he was trained to use in WWII:

VONNEGUT
Yes, but I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
INTERVIEWER
A rather large weapon.
VONNEGUT
The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
INTERVIEWER
It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
VONNEGUT
Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
INTERVIEWER
The ultimate terror weapon.
VONNEGUT
Of the Franco-Prussian War.

Who ever thought a description of a 240 mm howitzer could contain so much information, and be so interesting to read?  And later, he adds a summary rule about writing short fiction, which applies especially well to short animated films:

INTERVIEWER
Could you put the theory into a few words?
VONNEGUT
It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: Don’t take it all so seriously.
INTERVIEWER
And how would that be helpful?
VONNEGUT
It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.
INTERVIEWER
Practical jokes?
VONNEGUT
If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

5 Responses to “Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story, with a Bonus Rule”

  1. alonso Says:

    Good advice. Personally I approach short film ideas (one day I’ll have time to make them) is to simply imagine myself in the theater about to see the most awesome thing ever. So maybe I’m against #7 here, but I think writing for yourself is important. You are the one who is going to realize it, to live with it for who knows how long. How can you expect to entertain someone else if the idea doesn’t entertain you first? What’s important to you? The world would be a better place if ______? If your answer is “there is more laughter” and your humor is football in the groin, then so be it. If you stay true to your vision at least you are guaranteed one viewer.

    Like your comic book example, I’ll often jump into a movie at the last 1/2 hour because the Hollywood formula is so strong it’s really easy to pick up the pieces. So exposition wise I think you can assume a pretty fair intelligence in your viewers.

    http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/
    this is a writer who argues (well) against starting in the middle. He says it’s bad craft not bad theory that so many movies have so much boring exposition. Definitely worth a read. His basic point is you need a setup for your story like a punchline needs a setup for the joke, or a magic trick needs you expecting the ball in one hand for it to be magic that it’s in the other.

    He also has a great post about how to grab the audiences heart in a short film. http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_archive.html (2nd post on the page) (and here’s the film he made he’s talking about http://www.scotopiapictures.com/Films/filmsflickmem.html)

    Orson Scott Card had a great point about suspense. He says it’s not about keeping the audience in the dark, tell them everything so they know what’s happening and why they should care. Tell them everything except for one crucial piece and let them worry about wether that piece is going to be revealed in time.

    Carlos Baena http://www.carlosbaena.com/2009_10_01_archive.html has a great post about using your camera for exposition and cramming more stuff into a single shot.

  2. Kevin Says:

    Hey Alonso,

    Thanks for taking the time to put together that very detailed post! Good thoughts!

    Regarding Rule 7, it definitely does not exclude writing or creating for oneself. I take that as something of a given, though I think it’s entirely possible to create fine works that you don’t necessarily like yourself. (Edgar Allen Poe was one who dismissed most of the work he became famous for, since he was always trying to use his talent to create popular works, to make enough money to do the things he REALLY wanted to do). But I think if the ONLY person you’re trying to please and entertain is yourself, you risk doing things that fall into the ‘navel-gazing’ category. I see work of that nature every time I go to an art fair. Likewise, if you try to create for EVERYONE, you end up with pap.

    As for Brian McDonald’s ‘Invisible Ink,’ blog, it’s an interesting read. I share his adoration of older films and great directors. However, when you say he argues against starting in the middle, from my perusal, it appears he’s almost exclusively talking about feature films — 90 to 150 minute creations. I’m citing Vonnegut’s rules here because Vonnegut’s talking about short fiction, and I’m talking about short films. I would argue strongly that trying to apply the same structure and rules to a short that work in a feature is a mistake.

    Also, I think McDonald is too much of a curmudgeon, and too facile in dismissing the vast majority of filmmaking over the last 27 years. For example, in one post he clams that ‘Academics have hijacked Hollywood’ and in the next sentence says that modern ‘filmmakers only want spectacle.’ Aside from the fact that the first statement is demonstrably false (and the only time is was close to true was many decades ago, with critics like Truffaut and Bogdanovich became directors), those two statements are contradictory.

    Ultimately, his main point seems to be that every good story always has 3 acts: Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion. But there are plenty of examples where the Proposal and the Argument are intermingled, or where the Proposal (Act 1) is accomplished in a single brief scene. To make his point, he uses a well-told joke as an example of good storytelling (as does Vonnegut), but McDonald claims that when someone says “Start in the middle” or “Start as close to the end as possible” that this would mean a joke should start with the punchline.

    No, no, and no. “Start as close to the end as possible” doesn’t mean “Start at the end.” Vonnegut’s short stories aren’t one sentence or even one paragraph long. They’re as long as they need to be to engage the reader and get them where he wants them to go.

    To go back to the example of a well-told joke, do most jokes have a clear 3-act structure? Henny Youngman’s classic, “Take my wife . . . please!” is a great joke. One word punchline. Three word setup. The audience supplies all the rest. Brevity is the soul of wit. Get to your point, and don’t waste your audience’s time.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch