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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

Kurt Vonnegut wrote some great stories, some which bored me to tears in college as professors pleaded that it was the best stuff ever. While I can’t speak to all that, he had some good tips for writers, even as it is applied to screenwriting, and certainly to my job as a story analyst.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Yes, Kurt, we audiences can’t stand being bored, watching stories that are not at least as interesting as their own lives. Don’t play short-ball. Let us see characters that swing for the fences, and inspire us.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

The anti-hero is huge these days, to go along with the false belief that modern society is terrible and that we should go back to the jungle (yeah, looking at you, Avatar). Remember, if we don’t like or at least empathize with your character, we won’t go on the journey with him. It’s like getting into a stranger’s car; we fear more than wasted time.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

And he better want that water “at any cost.”

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

Every SENTENCE? Let’s talk scenes. Great scenes do both, as well as establish setting (a third thing). A scene that does none of the three should be deleted.

Ideally, a scene action should reveal character, further the plot and express something of the theme. Just don’t fall into allegory. Your story should swing for the fences, not every cotton-picking sentence.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

In Hollywood, we say, “Get in late, out early.” While that’s not good policy for the workplace, in stories, it means we don’t care about the mundane details of how the protagonist gets dressed in the morning and such. Focus your story on the pivotal action in his life.

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.

Vonnegut describes this as sending a character up a tree (act 1) and throwing rocks at him (act 2), then letting him come down (act 3). I say, make him fight his way down but the point is the same – nothing is as boring as characters having a good time. Use your sadistic license.

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.

In other words, don’t make your characters the cyphers of some monumental theme. Keep it intimate. Have a point of view.

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.

To hell with Vonnegut. Suspense is one of the greatest tools in your arsenal. Don’t explain too much too soon, but enough to establish mystery and keep us coming. Lure us into a story of setups and pay offs, feeding information piecemeal, through conflict until we are satisfied at the end.

The true trick is to establish the right questions to keep the audiences coming. “Who, What and Where” should be easy, except most “Whodunits” are actually “WHYdunits.”

Don’t give away your story too early.

Prometheus (2012) gave away the “what” on the first page, “where” on page two, and never answered the “why.” That’s the reason it failed. The Avengers fed us “why” early, but held off “how” – HOW can these heroes defeat the villain?

Make your story prove its case. If we can guess the ending and finish it ourselves, we’ll get bored and stop watching.

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