In 1999, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s previously uncollected stories was published under the title Bagombo Snuff Box. He included the following 8 tips for writing a good short story. As I did last week with Kerouac, I wanted to go through them and add my own commentary. Not that I’m in any way qualified to match wits with Vonnegut, but it’s a solid list, and I want to highlight some specific things that I’ve found useful.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Remember the audience. Here in the 21st century, remember the audience’s limited attention span, and the distractions that they’re surrounded by. It’s not just that you don’t want to waste their time. You want them to stay with you and not wander off onto their phone or into the vast reaches of internet videos.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
The character doesn’t have to be likable. I think that likable is an overrated quality for fictional characters. They need to be relatable. The situation that they’re in has to resonate with the reader, so they can have empathy for the character and what they’re going through. The want to root for them because they’re living vicariously though the character.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
In my books no writing I talk a lot about story goals and a character’s personal goals. Something is motivating the character and moving them forward. What’s keeping them from going home and watching TV, surfing the internet, or playing with their phone, and assuring they’ll be an active participant in the story?
4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
I have not written or published enough fiction to declare this to be a universal truth as a writer. However, as a reader it feels like it should be an immutable law. Your mileage may vary. This tip almost feels as if it should be a corollary to #1 though – wasting sentences is wasting the reader’s time.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This is something I’d like to see more of in modern writing. I think that the concept of “franchise” has hurt this. We want novels, TV shows, and movie universes to go on forever. By thinking that we, we figure there will be plenty of time to get around to the point, so we can lollygag and do some worldbuilding and establish characters and eventually have something happen that relates to the main plot. See #1.
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.
Fiction is driven by drama, drama is driven by conflict, and conflict usually means something bad has happened to someone. If we go back to #2, throwing the character into hot water means the audience has a reason to root for them. While #4 can do a lot to help establish characters, putting them into action and seeing the sorts of decisions they make and how they handle adversity is the best way to reveal who they are.
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.
My advice would be to write for two people. There’s the imaginary reader, the composite person that you want to buy and read and love the book, your target demographic if you will. That’s who I think Vonnegut is talking about. You also have to write to please yourself. Write what you enjoy writing, in the way that you enjoy writing it. Your writing will be better for it. Even if you manage to write a masterpiece that’s not to your tastes, it will be a miserable experience.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck 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.
I’m not a person who worries about spoilers. Tell me what happens in the TV show, tell me how the movie ends, give me the details on what that character in the book does. If it’s interesting, I’m going to want to see for myself how they did it. The words the author used. How the actor portrayed it. The way the director set up the shot. There’s more going on in a story than the plot points.
That said, I don’t think that suspense and knowing how things will turn out are mutually exclusive. As I said above, you can know for certain that the bad guy is going to get what’s coming to him. What you don’t know is when, or how. You can foreshadow these things, of course, so that the reader can figure it out. The trick is to keep enough suspense so that the reader wants to stay to the end to see how you pull it off.