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July 10th, 2005
01:24 am
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Mostly for my own reference
Kurt Vonnegut's Eight 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.

-- Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

(via http://www.americanstate.org/vonnegut.html)

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From:xiphias
Date:July 10th, 2005 01:14 pm (UTC)
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I love rule #4.
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From:elynne
Date:July 10th, 2005 02:55 pm (UTC)
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I'm a bit confused by #4 - where does that leave descriptions? Fleshing out the scenery is part of what gives a story depth, but noting that your characters are driving under an elevated freeway sloping down a series of hill-steps doesn't noticabely reveal or advance; much less does observing the half-sunk abandonded buildings in the bay, or the lighthouse at the projecting end of University Hill.
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From:xiphias
Date:July 10th, 2005 03:27 pm (UTC)
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Generally, if you follow rule #4, then descriptions exist either for fleshing out character or advancing plot: a description shows what a character notices, giving insight into how the character views the world, or sets up details that would be relevant for the plot -- how far the fire exits are, how various people are looking at one another, and so forth.

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From:packbat
Date:July 11th, 2005 12:41 am (UTC)
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But what if the descriptions serve other purposes? One of my favorite passages in Watership Down is where Hazel pauses at the lip of the rabbit-hole in that strange warren near the beginning, and the action halts while he looks out over the field. The artistry just floors me.

...but now that I think about it, the description does help establish Hazel's character. So much for that argument.


*mulls over other points of list*
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From:elynne
Date:July 11th, 2005 03:36 am (UTC)
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Maybe I'm missing something... or a lot of things. Watership Down is an excellent example of lots of passages that do not, as far as I can tell, establish character or advance the plot. The description of moonlight on the Down, of the beginnings of a migration, the paragraph when they come out of the moorland and into the meadows of the Warren of the Snares...

*shrug* I'll just keep on disagreeing with that particular rule, I guess.
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From:eredien
Date:July 11th, 2005 10:18 am (UTC)
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I think those either establish: culture--the rabbit way of thinking--or serve to get the reader deeper into the rabbits' timeframe and relationship to the earth and its wilds.
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From:packbat
Date:July 11th, 2005 11:41 am (UTC)
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Perhaps that is true, but if so, how well does the establishment of either of those (culture or rabbit-timeframe-relationship-with-nature) advance the action or develop the characters? And if they do, how come Richard Adams spends so much time on them? I think elynne's point remains strong.

In fact, upon reconsideration, I can name another great example from Richard Adams: the scene in Shardik describing the capitol city. Three pages of dense, poetic description, and hardly a quarter of it matters to the plot in even the most oblique fashion. It doesn't establish characters, either; it's not even from the viewpoint of a character.

Kurt Vonnegut is probably wise to declare that description should have a purpose. Elynne is probably wise to declare that there are more purposes description can have than are dreamt of in his philosophy.
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From:baxil
Date:July 11th, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC)
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My take on it is that, if one is inclined to both (A) agree with Vonnegut's advice and (B) interpret it as prescriptive rather than open-ended, the scene itself in many cases constitutes a character.

It may (but not always does) either help or hinder the characters' goals. It can certainly interact with them. And, well-written, it establishes other characters by virtue of its relationship with them, in much the same way adding a parent or love interest can bring depth to a protagonist.

Of course, I may be biased here, because last year I wrote a travelogue about Las Vegas, treating the city exactly that way -- as a person in its own right -- and it was probably one of the finer characterizations I've done in recent memory.
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From:packbat
Date:July 12th, 2005 01:36 am (UTC)
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In some ways, I very much like the idea of treating the scene as a character. In many ways, I find the idea off-putting – my definition of a character is not so wide as to include inanimates. I'd much rather take a cue from your first sentence, and declare that I (A') don't fully agree with Vonnegut's advice and (B') interpret it as a guideline, rather than a rule.

It's always fun to see what happens when you take someone literally, though.
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From:taral
Date:July 10th, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Awesome.
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From:eredien
Date:July 11th, 2005 10:22 am (UTC)
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I love numbers five and six; but I think I disagree with the last sentence of number 8.

I don't think you should deliberately withhold information from the reader simply to drag out the suspense or word-count--that's bad writing--but I don't think it's possible to chop off a few pages from the ending and ask a group of readers, "what do you think happens next?" and get agreement among them all, especially if the characters are real, three-dimensional people. It's part of the writer's responsibility to end the story well, too.

Of course Vonnegut could have said that tounge-in-cheek. And I agree with the few preceding sentences.
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From:baxil
Date:July 11th, 2005 11:29 pm (UTC)
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I don't believe I agree with #8, either. But I have the feeling that if I understood why he gave that advice, and why it had worked for him, I might have some sort of epiphany that would improve my writing.
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