Sunday, September 4

Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

Master storyteller Kurt Vonnegut once gave a talk in which he discussed the different shapes stories can have; it's funny. Here is the video.

The video is only a portion of Vonnegut's talk but this transcript gives the entire thing.

Since we're talking about Kurt Vonnegut and writing, here are his rules for writing:

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.

Kurt Vonnegut goes on to say:
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925 - 1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

I would give you a link to where I got these rules but I printed them out years ago and keep them the sheet tacked above my writing desk.


  1. Thanks Karen for sharing this. Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. The video is timeless, especially since Kurt isn't with us anymore.

    I wasn't aware of his rules for storytelling, but I can see that they are well founded. I think I'll use it as my desktop background and screensaver (as an image). I believe that the first rule is indeed #1. The reader, a stranger, is trusting the writer to deliver something worth their time...and their money, so it better be good.

    Thanks again for this post. I'll make a habit of viewing the rules daily. That way my storytelling will benefit from it. Otherwise, my writing will suffer and my readers won't come back. "So it goes." :)

  2. Thanks Jeffrey! I was excited when I came across the video. Vonnegut's story shapes are interesting. For myself, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of just what kind of story I'm trying to write. I'm sure that the truly great writers don't need to keep things like that in mind, but I imagine that even they had to start somewhere! :)

    I'm glad that I was able to share something useful with you! Take care, and thanks for the comment.


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