29

Kurt Vonnegut has 8 tips on how to write a good story

  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.

Most are very self-explanatory.

I don't know how to deal with number 5 though,

Start as close to the end as possible

What does he mean by this? What is this hoping to achieve/make easier for the writer?

And how do I know what constitutes "as possible"... I could probably start on the last sentence if needed... or a paragraph... etc.

I wonder if the tip is just meant to be a guide, a reminder to "have the end in mind", or whether writing your story from the end backwards is actually better.

Does anyone have any insights into this?

  • 1
    I've often heard you should write the part you feel most excited and inspired about first, not necessarily the ending (although it could be if that's what you're inspired to write the most). – DJ Spicy Deluxe Sep 25 at 18:04
  • 37
    9. Give obscure advice so people can interpret it in smart ways later – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Sep 25 at 19:32
  • @Galastel Or, to put it in more flattering terms, leave a little room for your reader to be a co-creator. – Jedediah Sep 26 at 13:38
12

What he means is avoid lengthy preamble and explanation for a story setup, but really it is hard to understand "start as close to the end as possible" without understanding story structure in general. It is a vague dictum.

In a typical popular and commercially successful story, a character is introduced, and within 10% or 15% of the story, something happens (called an "inciting incident") that is what the whole story is going to be "about".

We see the character in their normal world, solving normal-world problems (for them, if they are a hit-man or detective or wizard their normal world can be extreme for the rest of us).

We devote a little time (like I said, 10%) to show our MC (main character or main crew of characters) and build their normal world and something in their personality, readers expect that. It is necessary, and not possible to skip, because when something important happens we want the reader to sympathize with the MC.

Many beginning writers fail at this and try to start with an MC in extreme peril, but readers don't care if they don't know who is who.

What Vonnegut means is, whatever the main peril or problem or goal of the MC is, introduce it (as the inciting incident) earlier rather than later. But you cannot ignore the essentials, of letting the reader see your MC in action and understand the world she lives in.

To accomplish that, I recommend giving her some regular, everyday kind of problem to begin with, and have her interact with other people as quickly as possible. That is how readers learn "who she is" and is your opportunity to show something about her, a skill, a weakness, humor, whatever helps define her. THEN, as Stephen King says, you can put her in the blender.

Typically (and not every story goes this way) the big problem of the book will end up being something that tears her away from her normal world, where she is comfortable, and force her into a new world where she is uncertain and struggling. But for us readers to understand that, we first have to know what was her normal world, where she was competent and certain.

If you think about a romance, it works this way: A woman is shown in her normal (single) world, the inciting incident is meeting a future love interest that proves difficult, but they have to work together, so there is conflict that tears our MC away from her normal world, but then in stages understanding and love is found and she enters a new normal world, no longer single.

In fact most stories work that way, it is just that the goals of what is being sought are changed.

  • 1
    I really like your answer. Everything you mention is actually really useful. – theonlygusti Sep 25 at 20:36
  • 2
    Great answer - and it all ties in to the Hero's Journey quite well. I'd suggest the OP read up on that as well as it all links together, and will help make sense of it all – Thomo Sep 26 at 1:52
  • I feel like this answer misstates and/or overstates the necessity and the ubiquity of typical conventional forms. It seems to me that, while those are reasonable reasons for those conventional forms, they are not entirely "necessary, and not possible to skip". – Dronz Sep 26 at 18:16
  • 1
    @Dronz Every convention in writing has been successfully ignored by someone, they just make up for it by doing something else spectacularly. Rowling uses adverbs everywhere, but her imagination and story lines are world class (for her audience). She's written the best-selling books of all time, but she got rejected something like twenty times, because her writing did not adhere to conventional forms, and looked amateurish. Which it was. I write here for beginners, and they should not rely on the pure random luck that got Rowling published (she was rescued from the reject pile by a kid). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 26 at 18:41
38

Let's take Tolkien's Middle Earth, and the Lord of the Rings, as an illustration:

Not beginning at the beginning

At the very beginning, Eru created the spirits which would become the Valar, who would in turn create Middle Earth. Or something along those lines. This is described in the Silmarillion. (Which it's been years since I read.) Also in the Silmarilion, we get the original rebellion, by one of the Valar, Morgoth, and the actual creation of Middle Earth (hotly contested by the host of fallen Valar, led by Morgoth.)

Not beginning in the middle

Besides skipping over the creation of Middle Earth, we also skip over such things as the appearance of Elves, the reign of elvish civilizations, and their wars with Morgoth, and the corruption of some elves to make Orcs, and the appearance of humans, and the appearance of the horrors called dragons, and the fall of Morgoth, and the reason the Valar swore never to return to Middle Earth, and the rise and fall of the Numenorian civilization... We don't even start out with Sauron's ring-making, or the corruption of other rings, or...

Not beginning nine-tenths of the way through the story

Long after all the above events, a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, finds a magic ring which just happens to be the lost Ring of Power forged by Sauron, a lieutenant of Morgoth (the Original villain) who was spared from Morgoth's fall. The ring is very useful to Bilbo, but all of his adventures pale in significance to the true meaning and power of what he stumbled across. The Lord of the Rings doesn't start with Bilbo finding the ring, either - only Bilbo's adventure covers that event in detail, and Bilbo's adventure began before that discovery, and ended with his return to the Shire.

Beginning at nearly the end

When Bilbo is ready to give up the Ring, and it passes into the possession of Frodo, our tragic hero, that is when we finally start the story. If we started any later, the story would scarcely make sense. We started absolutely as late in the story as could be managed without making the story incoherent.

I presume this is what Vonnegut means; not all of the background on which your story is built is, or should be, included in the actual narrative. And even details which absolutely must be included can be lightly placed in memory, in setting, as much as in the tale proper. Don't waste the reader's time starting earlier in the tale than you have to.

  • That's another way to phrase the "Iceberg Worldbuidling" theory. – Mindwin Sep 26 at 12:46
  • Totally agree with your answer but it kinda contradicts point 8 'Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.' – Jungkook Sep 26 at 15:15
  • 5
    @Jungkook I take advise 8 as "If you are going to inform the reader of something, do it as early as possible". So combining 8 and 5 we get something like "Tell the reader the things he/she needs to know in the beginning, but only the things that are actually needed" – rasan076 Sep 26 at 16:19
  • 2
    @SRMM While it's true that the in-world history of a story does not necessarily come into existence linearly - it's my understanding that developing Middle Earth mythology had been a hobby of Tolkien's for years before he wrote either the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. He had already written versions of mythologies that included Elves vs. Morgoth. (Heck, he'd developed in-world languages and writing systems!) Lord of the Rings starts where it starts because the tale of "Nine-Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom" starts with Frodo. – Jedediah Sep 27 at 13:50
  • 1
    The Silmarillion was more a side-effect of making the languages than the motive for them. – Anton Sherwood Sep 28 at 0:27
16

Having googled Kurt Vonnegut's writing tips, I found several different explanations of tip #5. Since all explanations have some merit (as far as being useful advice), and since I don't know which one Vonnegut actually intended, I'll bring them all here.

The first explanation is the one Jedediah suggests: cut as much of the exposition as you can without sacrificing the story.

The second one goes: show right from the start where you're leading the story. In The Lord of the Rings we know from the second chapter onward that the goal of whatever happens is going to be the destruction of the Ring. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, we know it's all going towards blowing up the bridge. The reader shouldn't wonder where it's all going and why. (But he may well wonder how we're going to get there, and whether the goal will be achieved.)

The third explanation: try to bookend your story. By ending the story where you started it, or starting where you plan to end it, you show the journey that has been traversed in the course of the story. By showing something that hasn't changed, you're shining a spotlight on everything that has. An example would be The Lord of the Rings again, starting and ending in the Shire. But the characters have changed, and the world has changed. (More about bookends on tvtropes).

Again, I'm not sure which interpretation is the one Vonnegut had in mind, but I figure all of it is advice that might be useful.

  • Nice summary. It's a little odd to me that that none of the examples are from Vonnegut's own work, but that's a minor issue. – R.M. Sep 26 at 16:32
9

I would take this as an expression of what I think of as knowing the difference between history and story. Every story is embedded in a history. A history is a sequence of event connected by causality. A plot, in itself, is a history.

A story takes place within a history, but the story is not the history. A story exists when a character faces a choice of values. It is a choice they don't want to make, so they do everything they can to avoid making it. A story is a history in which they are forced to make it.

To construct a story, though, you have to convince the reader that the character has the values between which they must choose. The start of the story is the place where those values are illustrated and the set of events that will force a choice between them is set in motion.

If you start earlier than that, you are just giving history. Yawn.

If you start later than that, we can't live the story because we don't know what is at stake for the character.

So start the story at the last possible minute in which we will still understand what values are at stake for them. Anything before that is superfluous. Anything after is too late.

  • +1 for this. I don't necessarily like your usage of the words history and story, but the concepts themselves are powerful and the explanation is spot on. – João Mendes Sep 26 at 13:49
4

(This originally started out as a comment on Glastel's answer, about a fourth explanation, but I decided to expand it into a full answer)

Write part of the end of the book, at the start of the process. This gives you a target to aim for, a case of "this is where we will end up, now how do we get there".

This will allow you to thread foreshadowing throughout your story. It gives your story a direction, and - for some authors - it provides motivation, or a definitive "end point". (But, of course, don't be afraid to tweak that ending as the story develops!)

If you write the whole book in the same order that the reader will read it, it sometimes comes off as directionless and meandering - the story doesn't quite know where it's going. (Some authors, however, are able to thread the whole story together in order - but even they will go back through to tidy up again later!)

As a famous example: JK Rowling has said that the final chapter of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was one of the earliest things she wrote for the series. That's about 15 years before the final book (containing said chapter) was published!

However, this meant she knew that - if she wanted to share this chapter with the public - she had to finish the other six-and-nine-tenths books first.

Furthermore, while we don't know how many of these were edited in later, there are several key plot points which are mentioned, and had to be "hit" earlier in the series - here's a brief list:

• Voldemort is defeated - permanently
• Harry and Ginny are married
• Ron and Hermione are married
• Neville Longbottom is a teacher at Hogwarts
• Dumbledore is dead
• Snape is dead, and did something to make Harry respect him
• Draco and Harry are still rivals, but have a begrudging respect for each other

  • @Amadeus mentions in several posts (but not here) that this is how he works. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Sep 26 at 10:50
  • This can be a good way to work (if it suits your writing style), but I think the other answers are more likely what KV was getting at... i.e. what should be in the first part of the book, not what the writer should work on first. – user3067860 Sep 26 at 14:50
  • 1
    While reasonable advice (and what the title initially lead me to believe), I'm not convinced this is what Vonnegut actually meant. The rest of the advice is on how to structure the story, versus how to structure the writing process, which would make this an odd outlier. Given that, I'm guessing Vonnegut meant to structure the story to start as close to the end as possible, rather than the writing process itself starting as close to the end as possible. – R.M. Sep 26 at 16:29
0

Have you ever noticed that most main characters seem to be "special" in some way? It might be destiny, super powers, a rebellious attitude, or maybe they're just unlucky and got targeted by the bad guy.

This is because every story is about a conflict, and in order to tell the most compelling story we choose the person who is most affected by that conflict. The Lord of the Rings wouldn't be the same story if it was told from the POV of Sam's old Gaffer. Or from Bilbo's perspective while stuck at Rivendale. We get the eyes of those who are in the middle of everything.

Scope works the same way. In order to tell the most compelling story, you have to start at the best moment to centralize your conflict. Everything in the story should revolve around it. That's how you make your decisions. What should you describe? What should you leave unsaid? Which characters should be present? Whose POV? Does this particular scene belong?

And, yes. Where should you start?

I appreciate Jedediah's answer which dissects The Lord of the Rings, but the part they left out is this: we actually do have all of those early pieces of story, just elsewhere. We have the Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth, the histories, and so forth. Each one is properly scoped for itself. If Silmarillion was 20 chapters of history and then ended with 10 chapters that was LOTR, you'd have a problem.

In order to tell your own story, you must decide which characters are past figures (settlers, emperors, ancestors, and even the recent past like parents), and which are present characters. You must decide whether the merging of Upper Nell and Lower Nell, or whether the great earthquake of 2103, is relevant to the story.

In essence, you should decide which pat of your main character's memory is trivia and which part is working memory. Expalin what's necessary, allude to what's past.

The same goes for choosing your beginning. Start early enough that you can include everything that directly affects your central conflict. Your character's personality and skills need to be shown, and their normal world, so that's why most stories begin with a characteristic moment that shows us who they are before we see them face the real challenge of the conflict to come.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.