Blatherings

GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 3

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

0d18009

All right, this is the last part of this Kurt Vonnegut sub-series. Next time, I’ll move on to something else, I promise. But we can’t leave Vonnegut behind without looking at one of his oddest admonitions. In part 1 we tackled his two-function sentence rule and in part 2 we did sentence simplicity. Here we leave behind sentence structure and look at overall story structure. In part 1 I stressed the importance of structuring the order of words and ideas:

"Clive James once said that the fundamental criterion for good writing is to say things in the right order. And he was quite correct; it’s the one thing that all bad or underdeveloped writers (and as a consultant I see a lot of those) get wrong. And it’s the skill that all good writers have to strive hardest to learn. Putting words and sentences in the best sequence is so overlooked because it seems so obvious, so like a truism, that developing writers don’t consider it a thing at all. But word order and sentence order (and the succession of types of sentences) is equivalent to the succession of pitches, intervals, and chords in music."

This is the beginning of structure. Kurt Vonnegut had something quite contentious to say about structure. We’re back again to his “Creative Writing 101”, this time his Rule 8:

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 is a curious mixture of bad and good advice. The bad advice is obvious. It completely nullifies a swathe of stories – all crime fiction, virtually all horror, and in fact most fiction across the whole spectrum. All genres – all of them – depend on suspense: some entirely, some to a lesser but still vital degree. Suspense is what keeps us reading: even if it’s just suspense about whether Katie really will show up for her illicit date with Matt, or Rob will learn to love his estranged son, or whether the spring rains will fall and the farm will survive. Not all suspense is about who turned Mr Hooten’s head into a stovepipe and stole all his Van Goghs in chapter 1.

GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 2

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

77582041UA003_Vonnegut

In the last post, I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s famous Rule 4 (“Every sentence must do one of two things –– reveal character or advance the action”) and found that it doesn’t work. Today I’m sticking with Vonnegut (he put a lot of advice out there, maybe more than any other writer). This time I'm looking at an item from one of his sets of writer’s commandments.

The context is a piece Vonnegut wrote for the magazine IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, titled “How to write with style”. As with his “Creative Writing 101”, it’s a list of eight rules. The one that catches my attention is:

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. "To be or not to be?" asks Shakespeare's Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long...

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.

Warning: following that advice could seriously damage your prose.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017