The Rules for Writing Fiction

By Joe Moore

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the only rule we should apply to writing fiction is: There are no rules; do whatever you want as long as it works. Okay, if you pressed me to the wall, I would have to add two others: don’t bore the reader, and don’t confuse them.

When I speak of fiction writing “rules”, I don’t mean the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, split infinitives, daggling participles, and the other stuff we learned in school. As artists, let’s move beyond the assumed knowledge and manipulation of the English language to the aesthetics of writing. The rules that apply to the art of storytelling.

vonnegut When dealing with the art of storytelling, the great Kurt Vonnegut declared 8 rules to write by. If it makes you feel better, let’s call them suggestions. But we should all take them to heart because they go directly to the heart of telling a compelling story.

Here they are:

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

The reader’s time is not only valuable, it’s sacred. There are a million other things demanding his or her attention. We should repeat that every time we sit down to write.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

The worst reaction that a reader can have is that they don’t care if the protagonist makes it or not. Let the hero or heroine see the goal line, then put a big wall in their way and hope the reader cheers for them to climb over it.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

This goes for all characters from the main stars right down to the single-scene walk-on.

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

If it doesn’t, delete.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

This is my all time favorite rule to write by. Whether it’s a scene, chapter, or the entire book, get to the point. Anything that happens before that, delete.

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.

Our characters are judged by their actions and reactions. Have them work for it.

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.

Picture the typical fan that comes to your book signings. That’s who you’re writing to.

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 one sounds contradictory at first. But it’s not. It’s just another way of saying, cut the fat and get to the meat.

No one wants to slap a set of rules on creativity. And I don’t think Mr. Vonnegut meant to do so. But he called them rules because he wanted writers to pay attention. He wanted all of us to become better artisans. Read them each time you start to write. And when you finish for the day, read them again.

How about you? Do you follow his rules? Do you have others that help you in advancing your craft?


17 thoughts on “The Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Yep, great suggestions.

    My suggestion on top of these would be that each chapter should have a beginning, middle and end; and that the last paragraph of each chapter needs to compel the reader to turn that page.


  2. I hadn’t seen Vonnegut’s list before; thank you for sharing.

    I’d heard about the glass of water. Several others resonate with me because I was able to identify things that make books work, or not, for me as a reader. I write hardboiled crime fiction, but I can’t get into a book without at least one character I want to come out ahead.

    He hits another pet issue of mine. I never understood writers who treat their readers dismissively. A reader has devoted two of his most precious assets–money and time–to read your book. Treat him well. Of the two, it’s time that may be the most flattering to the author. For some people, dropping twenty-five bucks on a book is no big deal. Everyone has a finite amount of time available. To spend of it on your book (my book, Elmore Leonard’s book) is the most sincere form of flattery.

  3. Rick, thanks for dropping by. Come back often and tell all your friends what a cool blog this is. 🙂

    JJ, I totally agree. We should treat chapters just like the entire book. And I love cliff hanger endings. My co-writer and I use “bait & switch” cliff hangers where the end of a chapter does not lead into the next. The ending of the previous one does. So you have to keep going. We also try to keep our chapters to around 1k words so the reader want to continue for one more, and one more . . .

    Kathryn, great advice. We should definitely, positively, and absolutely delete anything ending in “ly”.

    Dana, you’re right. Respect for the reader’s time and money should be our daily mantra.

    Mark, that’s a wonderful list. The only problem with all these lists is that writing starts to become just like playing golf. You only have to remember 300 things every time you hit the ball. 🙂

  4. Mickey Spillane once said, “The first chapter sells this book. The last chapter sells your next book.” I try to do some of that on a microcosmic level with chapters. The opening paragraph or two is to draw the reader into this chapter. The closing paragraph or two is to make them want to read the next. May not be a cliffhanger, but something that will logically lead to moving on.

  5. I like these. And I also like “kill the adverbs” rule.

    For myself, I try to get right to the story, even in the first sentence if at all possible. I hate the four or five paragraphs of description/setting starts that make me want to bang head on desk.

  6. Great list. Thanks Joe. I also like to think that every page contains something that makes the reader want to read the next – really an extension of the ‘cut to the meat’ mantra.

  7. Hmmm…excellent jewels of wise adivce here. But I notice that neither streaking nor big red clown shoes are mentioned in his list. Perhaps I need to revise my writing rules.

  8. “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Somerset Maugham.

    I think Maugham was too curmudgeonly here. I like Vonnegut’s “rules.” There are just certain things a story must do if it is to succeed. Thanks for the great reminders, Joe.

    I do think #8 could be a bit misleading. I always counsel new writers to “act first, explain later.” Readers don’t have to know everything about the characters up front if you have trouble happening. Dribble in a little backstory for character bonding (King and Koontz are masters at this) but mostly keep moving and only give what’s absolutely essential.

    Sometimes chucking your first chapter and beginning with chapter 2 works wonders.

  9. “Sometimes chucking your first chapter and beginning with chapter 2 works wonders.”

    You’re so right, Jim. I’ve done it a number of times once I found the first chapter was more for me than the reader. Agents and editors say one of the most common mistakes new writers make is starting their book in the wrong place.

  10. One of the real practices I do adhere to is to write the whole thing in draft, edit it once or twice, then shelve it for at least a month, maybe more. After that I pick it up and read it again and wow there are a lot of changes that need to be made.

    I also find that recording myself reading it out loud and then listening to it can catch a lot of stuff I wouldn’t otherwise had seen with my eyes. Those recordings that are fairly decent become podcast series, those that aren’t go back to the serious edit pile.

  11. Agreed, especially with #6. I was reviewing my book Uninvoked just a few days ago, and noticed—I’m way too easy on my characters. Sure Amy never catches a break, and every time she tries to struggle free she ends up in a worse disaster, but that’s not the point!

    I found a scene where nothing tramatic happens to her at all. She has a nice little carriage ride (to a place she doesn’t particularly want to go to, but still) where she has a conversation with a handsome man (sure its the villain, but still!) and enjoys the scenery.

    It’s the perfect spot for the carriage to break down and leave them stranded, in the rain, with assassins after them. ^^ Don’t you think?

    Thanks for posting! I am really enjoying your blog so far.

  12. The heck with suspense? My main problem has always been giving too much away too soon. It has taken me and my editors to cure me of this trait, and I still do it in the first few drafts. What the reader knows and when he or she knows it is crucial to building suspense. I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s works, and his stories are so rich and entertaining he didn’t need suspense building. Unfortunately, we do. Just my two cents. Great Post.

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