writers resources / writers tips

Writer’s Tips #64: From Kurt Vonnegut

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip: Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.

This is one of eight tips from American short story writer, Kurt Vonnegut, a NYT best selling author who uses science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them. From his website:

His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality. Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it.

Best known for Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973), he also wrote  fourteen novels. These are great tips from this master story-teller:

  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 hell 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.

What do you think of #5?

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More Writers Tips:

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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28 thoughts on “Writer’s Tips #64: From Kurt Vonnegut

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    • Interesting point. Me, I’d say ‘start as close to the action’, but I don’t think he meant that. Lee Child wrote a book where he started at the end and went back in time. As much as I like Child, didn’t like that book.


  4. I’m not sure about #5. My feeling is to start where the conflict is obvious.

    I do have a question —
    Is it kosher to leave out the view point of the main character? I’m writing the story in various 3rd person. In my opinion this will work but I’d like your opinion too.


    • The main character tends to be the person you’re traveling with. They might be a narrator, observer, or hero, but you are closest to them. That person’s story could be told through the voices of others, so in that way, it would work.


  5. Interesting list. As far as #5, I remember William Goldman–mainly a screenplay writer–talking a lot about coming in “in the middle” of a scene–the point being, to bring in the viewer (reader) in an already exciting, active place… the one that’s jarring to me is “Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.” — EVERY sentence? Wow… That’s really being lean I guess… maybe I should look at that. I also like the “write to please one person”–I definitely get into the trap sometimes of thinking beyond that. I am a big fan of Vonnegut, so thanks for this list. 🙂


    • I’m reading the latest Lord Alexander Hawk thriller, by Ted Bell. He does that constantly–jumps into the middle of a scene, letting me wonder what the h*** happened to the end of that other scene (I can’t give any examples because they’d be spoilers).


  6. #5 is some very, very good advice. #8 I think can be interpreted quite widely. For instance how long is the story’s time span? If it takes place over decades the end could be the final year.


  7. All great points.
    No 5 – still thinking on that. 🙂
    No 8 – interesting!
    Here I thought were encouraged NOT to give up the plot too early at all. And I’ll admit I actually LOVE finishing a story in my head, my own way, when I have the facts early. That way, I’m surprised when I get to the end – and find out how the Author handled it LOL


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