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.

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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.

Another problem with Rule 8 is that it contradict’s Rule 4 (see part 1), which prohibits putting anything other than action and character into sentences. Revealing information primarily through action and character (rather than through straight exposition) is precisely what gives us suspense. We start the story in ignorance, and pick up information gradually through the narrative; as we grow to care about the characters, this gradual process is what cultivates suspense.

But there is a sliver of good advice buried in the bad in Vonnegut’s Rule 8. I see a lot of writing by new and developing writers, and as I remarked a few paragraphs earlier, the single biggest problem is the failure to get things in the right order. Part of good judgement is about deciding how much information to give the reader up-front. How much do they need in order to understand and engage with the story? Sometimes an inexperienced writer will give way too much information; for example, they will often front-load a story with backstory material that might be better revealed gradually through flashbacks at opportune moments in the narrative. Some novices, trying too hard to achieve suspense, go the opposite way, giving away far too little, leaving the reader floundering and disorientated.

In previous posts I’ve concluded with a version of Vonnegut’s advice, reworded to be more practical and useful. In this case I don’t think there’s any way at all to reword this stinker. The best thing to do is just ignore it.

That about wraps it up for Vonnegut, I think. A great writer and prolific adviser deserves three posts. In future posts I’ll be looking opening out, looking for other nuggets of bad advice and suggesting how to avoid suffering from it.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017