Friday, December 13, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut. Do the lives of authors often reveal more than you think about their stories? His rules to Short Story Writing.

Author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
You might wish to look up some of your most treasured authors and check into what their lives have been like. If you can find out what actually happened to them in their youth you will often find there is a similar theme that runs through their writings. And often these themes are somehow connected to their life experiences and passions. For instance, the theme in my writing usually deals with survivors of trauma. This theme is closely related to my life with my father who was severely traumatized during war.

When I started reading Vonnegut's books I wondered what had happened to him to trigger such dark humor in his books. I imagine most of you have heard of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most famous and influential satirical novelists and essayists of the 20th century. And most of you may know that he had a wild imagination and sense of absurd humor even though he wrote serious stories filled with social commentaries. Often he explored the human condition mixed with the fantastical and the scientific.You may even know some of his most famous writings such as Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

But did you know that much of his writing about war, a recurring theme in his books, came out of his own experiences?  After attending Cornell University for two years he enlisted in the army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He was captured shortly after he went overseas and became a prisoner of war in a Dresden slaughterhouse about 30 feet underground. You need only imagine what the Nazi's did to him. After the bombing and liberation by the Allied forces, he was assigned to burn the remains of the dead. He was deeply effected by the war and remained depressed most of his life. Today we would probably say he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and never received the help he needed.

So is there a silver lining to his life? Yes. Instead of being mired in his past, he became a healer in his own way. His experiences contributed much to his intense satirical, but social commentaries and stories. He influenced many, many people to think more deeply and become better humans. And humor was one of the best ways he found he could cross over into the unthinkable and be heard. That's true even today. So thank you Kurt Vonnegut for the treasures you have given us.

Here are his 8 simple, but wise rules to short story writing from his 1999 book,
 Bagombo Snuff Box.

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 that 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 lead 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 pages.

Of course rules are meant to be broken, right? Even Vonnegut admits this is true.

What are your rules for short story writing? Please share them with us.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I love this post!!! Thank you so much. Kurt Vonnegut had an enormous amount of influence on my young life, due in part to living in a community where 99 out of 100 Dad's fought in the war.
His rules for short story writing are terrific and would apply to writing novels as well. Some of us are too long winded for the shorter form, or if we do try, it turns into a novel.
Reading this post has set me off to a great start today. Thanks!

Ana said...

Thanks Elizabeth. Yes, Vonnegut was an amazing writer. Love the way he could point out an issue and then smash it with a hammer.