I ran across this today on Open Culture. Slaughterhouse Five is one of my favorite books (I hope Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation finds its way to the screen as soon as possible). I also dug up another list from Vonnegut on style. A lot of these popped right off the page as fundamental rules of screenwriting (if such things exist). I guess good writing is good writing. From Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction:

Vonnegut: How To Write a Good Short Story

  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 adds that great writers break these, noting Flannery O’Connor only obeyed the first. From How To Use the Power of the Printed Word:

Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

  1. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple. As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
  4. Have guts to cut. It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head.
  5. Sound like yourself. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.
  6. Say what you mean. Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
  7. Pity the readers. They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

I don’t know how many of you folks remember Back to School, but I’d follow these at your own risk:


William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

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  1. I need to read more Vonnegut. “Welcome to the Monkey House” is a great collection of short stories.

    P.T. Anderson kind of smacks of a modern-day Vonnegut?

    I like how youtube has connected “Sam Kinison on Hunger” to the clip from “Back to School.” Ahh! Ahhhhhhh!!!


    • Never thought of Vonnegut like PTA, but I definitely see some similarities. The Vonnegut stuff was great in Back to School: “Hey, Kurt, you read lips? Fuck you! Next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum.

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