kurt vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

kurt_vonnegut__jr__by_siglarkEight rules for writing fiction:

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. Now 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 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.

Source: Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

pixar’s rules of storytelling

Each writer has a different approach to rules. For some, they’re made to be broken, others they are mere guidelines, and even others, they are cliches to be avoided like the plague (guess which one I’m not). 

Anyway, advice in general is like excerpts from the bible: people cherrypick what works for them and ignore the rest.

But when you get stuck, you never know what it is that might help get you unstuck. So it’s good to have something to go to. Who knows? Therein may lie your answer.

These Pixar rules, which have been floating around the interwebs for a while, are an excellent go-to. Thus, I thought I’d share it because it made they’ve made their way to my bulletin board of oh-my-god-help-me-now (pictured).

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Here we go:

  • #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  • #2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  • #3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  • #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  • #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  • #6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  • #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  • #8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  • #9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  • #10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  • #11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  • #12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  • #13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  • #14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  • #15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  • #16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  • #17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  • #18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  • #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  • #20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  • #21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  • #22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Source: Emma Coates, via The Pixar Touch.

the granny square approach

Momentum, like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost is lost forever.

Or so it seems.

Something like a particularly nasty cold that lasts a week (especially when it is followed by Husband spending the whole next week sick with said cold) can wreak havoc on my momentum.

Like coming back from vacation, or from an illness, or from a mental rabbit hole of writing on one project, returning to the status quo is difficult. You feel like the Campbellian hero, returning to find the world the same but himself drastically different.

Only  your arc was a helluva lot more pathetic than the hero’s. You find yourself wondering just how the hell you did this day-in, day-out, once upon a time. What was I? Superhuman?

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Losing your momentum is like losing a little bit of yourself. What is all this yarn and how the hell will I ever make it anything?

I kept telling myself there has to be some technique for dealing with this… something I could fall back on when I find yourself in this situation… some easy trick to convince myself it’s all not as difficult as I thought.

I realized when crocheting once, that the idea of holding in my hands the tiny fragment of what will be a finished product is too overwhelming. How can I have this brief string of stitches and imagine it an entire blanket?

It’s so much easier to just… not  do it. I accepted the lack of momentum and gave up.

But obviously, if I kept doing this, I’d never accomplish anything.

So I tried this. I wasn’t going to make an entire blanket, I was going to make one granny square. That was easy. It just took an hour.

And then, when that was done, I made another.

Before I knew it, I had a bag of granny squares. I had a whole fucking blanket!

And, funnily enough, I didn’t even want a blanket anymore. I made pillows instead.

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My point is that everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Don’t worry about writing that novel; write that chapter. Hell, write that one scene. Or even just two hundred words. Just focus on that.

Just that. And don’t worry about anything else until it’s time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pillow that’s as sexy as hell.

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Or two. 

Aw, yeah.