If asked to choose a favorite author (which is a ridiculous exercise), I always say Kurt Vonnegut. He was a genius. A rule breaker. A curmudgeon of the highest order.
I cried on the day he died.
I recently stumbled upon a list of Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing short stories, and after reading them, I suspect that he would’ve liked storytelling very much. I think he might’ve found himself right at home at a Moth StorySLAM or even one of our Speak Up storytelling shows. I’m not sure if he would’ve taken the stage, but based upon his eight tips, he would’ve loved to listen to the stories as a member of the audience.
At least a few of the items on his list are not only applicable to storytellers but are highly recommended.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips for Writing Short Stories
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Part of the reason for time limits in storytelling is to assure that no audience member will feel like their time is being wasted. Even if the storyteller is ineffective or a particular story doesn’t resonate with you, fear not. It will be over in less than 10 minutes.
But it’s also true that there’s nothing more annoying than listening to a storyteller spend five or ten minutes onstage explaining why he is an amazing person who has done amazing things.
Don’t waste our time. Be honest and audacious.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Stakes are important in a story. When choosing a story to tell, I try to find a moment in my life when the stakes were high. Even if I was ultimately defeated or failed miserable or even ended up as the bad guy, I know that my audience wants to be rooting for someone. Audiences want to be on the edge of their seat, trapped in a blend of worry and hope, even if the story doesn’t end happily.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Given time constraints and the personal nature of this kind of storytelling, it’s difficult for every character to want something in your story. Oftentimes it’s impossible to know what someone wanted.
But you should want something, and the audience should know what is is. Listen to a great story and what the storytellers wants will be clear. Sometimes it’s as simple as a glass of water, but more often, it will be something larger and more important, like respect, love, friendship or salvation.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
This rule, more than any other on Vonnegut’s list (and perhaps on any list of storytelling tips), is critical to storytelling. If ever sentence in your story does one of these two things, your chances of telling a great story are high.
My wife is a fierce advocate of this belief. When working with me or one of our Speak Up storytellers, this is something that she is often focused upon. She cuts into my stories with surgical precision, discarding my amusing asides and quippy one-liners, leaving only the most important parts behind. The parts that reveal character and advance action.
Cutting out moments in a story is hard, particularly when you are telling true stories from your own life, because these moments really happened to you. They must be said, damn it! Cutting out sections of our stories feels like discounting parts of our lives. But if you’re not revealing character or advancing action, you’re probably doing a disservice to your story.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This may be Vonnegut’s second most valuable rule to storytellers. Time limits alone should underscore the importance of this rule, but starting as close to the end as possible will almost always result in a better story.
When I am deciding upon a story to tell, I am often choosing a singular moment from my life. These moments frequently last just a few seconds. A moment of confrontation. A discovery. A few words spoken at a critical moment. A realization. A life changing experience.
I start with that singular moment and work from there, moving both forward and back, searching for just enough story to bring that singular moment into the sharpest focus possible. I try to stay as close to the moment as possible. Everything in my story must serve that original moment.
6. Be a sadist. No 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.
I tell true stories (I save my fiction for my novels), so making awful things happen to my leading character is not possible. I’m stuck with the truth. Thankfully, I’ve led a life full of awful moments, so I am rarely at a loss in this regard.
But storytellers should never shy away from the awful things that have happened to them and (even better) the awful things that they have done. These oftentimes make the best stories.
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.
I don’t know if this is true, but I tell my stories for my wife first. It’s the same reason I write my novels. If she doesn’t like my story, it doesn’t get told until she does.
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.
While I don’t fully embrace this idea, I like the sentiment behind this rule a lot. I think suspense is critical for the success of many stories, but I also believe in frontloading as much information into a story as possible. Almost all my stories begin with the time and place, because doing so allows my audience to instantly begin building a visual tapestry in which my story will unfold.
For example, if I say that my story takes place in December of 1984 in a small town in New Hampshire, my audience can instantly picture the landscape without me saying a word about it. They have a good idea of the weather. They can probably see the clothing that people around me are wearing and the cars that they are driving. They know what kind of music is playing from the radios and which President is on the evening news.
Time and place can do so much work for the storyteller. While I often search for a brilliant first line to my stories, I often return to time and place because I rarely find an opening line that packs as much punch.