By Joe Moore
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the only rule we should apply to writing fiction is: There are no rules; do whatever you want as long as it works. Okay, if you pressed me to the wall, I would have to add two others: don’t bore the reader, and don’t confuse them.
When I speak of fiction writing “rules”, I don’t mean the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, split infinitives, daggling participles, and the other stuff we learned in school. As artists, let’s move beyond the assumed knowledge and manipulation of the English language to the aesthetics of writing. The rules that apply to the art of storytelling.
When dealing with the art of storytelling, the great Kurt Vonnegut declared 8 rules to write by. If it makes you feel better, let’s call them suggestions. But we should all take them to heart because they go directly to the heart of telling a compelling story.
Here they are:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
The reader’s time is not only valuable, it’s sacred. There are a million other things demanding his or her attention. We should repeat that every time we sit down to write.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
The worst reaction that a reader can have is that they don’t care if the protagonist makes it or not. Let the hero or heroine see the goal line, then put a big wall in their way and hope the reader cheers for them to climb over it.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
This goes for all characters from the main stars right down to the single-scene walk-on.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
If it doesn’t, delete.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This is my all time favorite rule to write by. Whether it’s a scene, chapter, or the entire book, get to the point. Anything that happens before that, delete.
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.
Our characters are judged by their actions and reactions. Have them work for it.
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.
Picture the typical fan that comes to your book signings. That’s who you’re writing to.
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.
This one sounds contradictory at first. But it’s not. It’s just another way of saying, cut the fat and get to the meat.
No one wants to slap a set of rules on creativity. And I don’t think Mr. Vonnegut meant to do so. But he called them rules because he wanted writers to pay attention. He wanted all of us to become better artisans. Read them each time you start to write. And when you finish for the day, read them again.
How about you? Do you follow his rules? Do you have others that help you in advancing your craft?