Rules of the Written Road


Kurt Vonnegut came up with eight rules for writing fiction, nicely referenced in an interview with Andrew O’Hagan, and noted there by O’Hagan as: “His rules for good writing are entirely bogus – he knew it, too – but they are not un-useful. Rules are just a bunch of things someone adorned into precepts while they were on the way to getting it wrong, but Vonnegut got it right now and then so we’d do well to listen.”

Vonnegut’s work, like his work, is more than “not un-useful” and it got me to thinking if I have rules. But then my love/hate relationship with rules kicks in–there is much to be said for wandering off any well-troden path. Something Vonnegut agreed as well with when he said, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor….She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

Now I do hold that extraordinary talent can get away with almost anything–and everything.  However, I’m pretty damn sure most folks over-estimate their talent by a huge factor.  Talent also, like a charming relative, can wear out its welcome way too fast if that’s all there is–auditions for any reality show prove this over and over again.

So…rules, or no rules? Or do you try a compromise and call them guidelines? But then I’m always suspicious of compromise in art–it tends to lead to a mush that no one can love.  Or, to put it another way, mix all your colors and you get bland gray mud. So how about  we say that it’s not bad to know the rules, use them, and ignoring either at your peril or only because they don’t work. But this brings us back to folks abusing the rules, ignoring them, and not necessarily coming up with a good story.

Also, writers being writers, the temptation to be clever crops up, as when Vonnegut’s advises to “Start as close to the end as possible.”   That’s about as much use as telling someone, “Start in the right place.”  Well, duh.  If one knew that, a whole host of other writing problems would be solved in an instant.  But the rest of his rules are good ones to lean on.

It’s also useful to have things boiled down by a pro like Vonnegut to what’s really important.

Personally, I find the last one the most useful:  Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

Seems to me that most folks mistake ‘tension or suspense’ as coming from a reader not knowing something. In truth, suspense comes from the reader knowing a lot and a character missing out on some key info, or just a plain old fashioned ticking clock going.  But there’s a caution here, too–too much information is as dangerous as too little.  You can overload a reader.  So the trick is:

Give your readers as much IMPORTANT information as possible as soon as possible–and make sure it’s interesting.

This automatically helps with not wasting anyone’s time.  Also, it cuts down on repetition. Saying something once is interesting. More than that and your now wearing on the nerves.

Two, three and four are all solid.  But ‘how ‘ to do all this becomes the question, so we have to expand this one…

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for–as in you need to show that character early on doing things that earns a reader’s sympathy. We all admire talent, grace, good deeds. You can have a character get away with a lot if you set up a few traits the reader will fall for right off the bat.  Sympathy (by understanding someone) is an awesome hook.

Good to remember, too, that what you tell a reader often doesn’t stick. What you show, stays forever.  (i.e.–only bad guys kick the dog.)

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This goes for every character and every scene. And again, is best shown by showing the character doing stuff to get what he or she wants.  The other shoe that needs to fall here is that something or someone should stand between the character and his or her goal. Conflict is what keeps any story popping.  Doesn’t have to be world-ending stuff, but does need to be there, or you’re back to wasting someone’s time. So could add here…

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water–and something or someone should come between the character getting that want satisfied.

This also actually then ties into the advice that, Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. If you’ve written a character who wants something, then what you’re writing is more likely to reveal something about that character (the want does that) and advance the action. Keep in mind that this does not mean ‘no description.’  Used right, descriptions can reveal everything.

And all of this then fits into, Be a sadist. Give a character a ‘want’–then you find ways to keep the candy from reach. Or give the character the candy, and have it blow up. Take joy in your work–in making life more complicated, making goals harder to reach, and raising stakes for failure to unbearable.  It’s not so much sadism as tough love–put your characters though the worst things possible so they can come out the other side knowing themselves better.

Now for the tricky bit–Write to please just one person.  There is a danger in getting too many opinions, particularly if the input comes too early.  It’s like opening the oven to see if the souffle is done–the thing usually falls flat on you.  Alternately, you’re going to have to show your work at some point unless it is just for you.  So, really, this to me is…

Write to please just one person–but learn to edit and take advice once the writing is done.

If one other person sees a mistake, maybe they’re wrong. Two people, same flaw–time to look at the pages. Closely. Three folks…ignore that at the peril of either appearing stupid in print or not even getting to that point. In this world, keeping the writing close is not a bad thing. But if your goal is to publish and be accessible, then eventually you not only have to open the window, but you have to throw your work there.

So those are my rules, I guess. My guidelines. I reserve the right to throw them out, but only if the story really, really, really needs something different.

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4 thoughts on “Rules of the Written Road

  1. John Steinbeck also recommended writing to please just one person. When you set the masses up as your target audience you stultify your voice. It’s too daunting a prospect. But by choosing somebody you are familiar with to write to, you loosen up your handle, and flow more with the passage? Don’t you think? Also, I would debate whether most writers over-estimate their talent, as you say. Maybe they do as a facade, but underneath the bravado, they fear their own insignificance. Otherwise we would all procrastinate a whole lot less and write much more prolifically, wouldn’t you say?

    • I think most writers either think they’re wonderful…or terrible. The ego gets in there and distorts any true perception. That’s why you need first readers who will give you a better take on the work (or you need to rest it until you have some perspective).

      And, yes, you have to write to your voice, and that means not trying to write to “everyone”.

  2. What’s interesting is just how much of this post of this post can apply to other mediums like the movies. Some of these rules were laid down by Alfred Hitchcock back in the beginning of his career, see the movie “Sabotage” and the scenes where the young boy is unknowingly transporting a bomb across London.

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