Writing Echoes

Delijah's Writing Blog

Kurt Vonnegut: How to write a short story

Kurt Vonnegut [link] (1922 – 2007) was a North American writer whose works blend satire, gallows humor and science fiction. They include Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). He was a POW during WWII, and became known for his humanist beliefs. Wikipedia [link] says he was a “critical liberal intellectual” which I guess is a label you only understand if you are either North American or highly versed in their political system. The man seemed to be quite versed in sarcasm and skepticism, too.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction he listed a few “rules” on how to write a good short story. While I am not a fan of how-tos at all, these are nice. So while I am nobody compared to Kurt Vonnegut, here are his “rules” and my approach to the issue. You can hear them from the man himself, too.


  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. Write something worth being written, worth being told, something that comes from within, that you need to write, that makes you feel. If you don’t feel, chances are the story won’t be alive and end up being a timewaster.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Bonus points if it is the bad guy! One day I want to write a bad guy a reader can identify with better than with the good guy. How’s that for a challenge?
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Wanting makes them human. A good character will develop “wants” in no time. The problem comes when they take over your brain with said wants. Then, boy, you are in trouble.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action. Hm… I like setting too. I am a fan of settings.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. Good piece of advice. Else your short stories devolve and you end up with 40,000 words when you are not looking.
  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. Hell yeah! Guilty as charged, your Honour.
  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. That person should be yourself above all. In very rare occasions someone else (and only if you love them very much). Unless we are talking about about your publishing agent. Then things are different XD
  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. Make them believe in the story as much as you do. Then it’ll work.

Then again, I believe that if you want to write something (or if something / someone wants to be written through you), just write it out, screw rules. You know that saying that you must always tell your lawywer the truth, it’s his job to scramble it up? – you probably don’t because I don’t really remember how it goes, and I don’t think it is an English saying XD. Anyway, you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t. The point is write. Rules are the narrow world of the editor’s job.



6 responses to “Kurt Vonnegut: How to write a short story

  1. brickwallviews April 21, 2012 at 10:31

    I agree with you – I’m not a fan of ‘how-to’ advice either (and even less of a fan of ‘don’t-do’ advice…) but these guidelines are vague enough to be interpreted in any number of ways, and specific enough to help improve stories.
    Hopefully my stories adhere to at least a few of these…
    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Sakaki Delijah April 21, 2012 at 11:13

      I’d say that the only valid rule for writing is WRITE, but these are very valid points that can get you to think about any given story and make it better.

      I am very guilty of #6. Very, very guilty…

      Glad you enjoyed, thanks for dropping by ^^

  2. Denise April 23, 2012 at 11:01

    I don’t buy the last rule, but maybe that is more valid for short stories than for longer writing?