GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 1

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.


There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. Do I intend to add to the enormous didactic dump-bin? You bet I do. As someone who earns a living from writing books and advising others on their works in progress, I’m a little disturbed by the quality of some of the advice that’s floating around out there, much of it coming from people who ought to know better. It’s hard enough to develop oneself as a writer, without wasting time being guided by bad rules and principles.

I’m beginning this occasional series with massive chutzpah, by taking on a literary colossus who has become a giant in the world of writing advice. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of giving out advice to budding writers. He published his opinions in the form of at least two lists of “rules” for good writing: his “Creative Writing 101” (which was part of the Introduction to his book of short stories Bagombo Snuff Box) and a more serious magazine article, “How to Write With Style”.

Both are reproduced in various forms online, and both of them have issues – elements of bad advice. Any novice writer attempting to stick by all of Vonnegut’s cardinal rules will come badly unstuck.

First let me say that a lot of Vonnegut’s tips are very good. As a writer he knew what the hell he was doing. But some – including a few that get quoted frequently and admiringly (and out of context), even by some of my fellow professionals – are just nonsense. The one that’s exercising my ire here and now is this one, his Rule 4 from Creative Writing 101:

Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

It sounds so plausible and sensible, doesn’t it? But think a moment and its not-so-greatness is revealed. What about backstory? What about description? A story without any sentences that do things other than reveal character or advance the action would have:

  • no backstory
  • no ideas or concepts
  • no physical descriptions

And without backstory and description, the story would have:

  • no physicality in its characters or their circumstances
  • no setting; no sense of period or place
  • no context; no sense of being part of a bigger story

Now, I’m not saying that a good writer couldn't make a great story while leaving out all those elements. Come to think of it, that would make an interesting creative challenge. But Vonnegut wasn't offering this advice as a creative challenge but as a basic rule for writing fiction. And he disobeyed it himself all the time; his writing, like virtually all great writing, contains many sentences that neither reveal character nor advance the action; there are sentences of ideas, description, and background. Admittedly, in his short stories, for which he primarily intended this particular set of rules, Vonnegut came close to using only those two types of sentence: action and character; however, he got around the problems by smuggling description and backstory into the same sentences, sometimes with convoluted results.

Vonnegut knew very well the impossibility of adhering properly to his Rule 4, and his “Creative Writing 101” was partly tongue-in-cheek. He concluded his list with this eternal truth:

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

That first rule in Vonnegut's Creative Writing 101, the rule never broken by any great writer under any circumstances, was:

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

That’s a good rule.

So, what are we to make of Rule 4? What was Vonnegut really trying to say? In my view, the rule could be more profitably and helpfully reworded:

Every sentence in your story must have a vital function within the whole piece; it must tell the reader something that they need to be told if they are to enjoy and understand your story.

That lets in a lot of material while keeping out anything that isn’t absolutely essential. There’s an adjunct rule, without which that basic rule will not work effectively:

Ensure that the sequence of sentence types (action, character, description etc.) feels natural and yields the best, clearest, most engaging telling of the story.

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 something you can’t learn from rules or nostrums; you learn it by reading the works of others and by experience: write, read, edit, rewrite until you have the balance – or the rhythm and melody – right. Then you’ll be writing with the best.

Watch out for the next post, in which I’ll be looking some more at Vonnegut and sentences.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017