Vonnegut’s Rules

Hemingway's rules are about getting ahead, Naupaul's about finding your voice. For balance, here are Kurt Vonnegut's rules, listed in Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, which focus on how to satisfy readerly appetites:

“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.”

Vonnegut added that Flannery O'Connor “broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

The seventh rule is like Alan Cooper's theory from The Inmates Are Running the Asylum that a program should be designed with a specific user in mind.

Animator Kevin Koch provides commentary on Vonnegut's eight rules and extracts a ninth rule from Vonnegut's Paris Review interview:

"9. Don't take it all so seriously."

Scroll to Top