If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it. So said Albert Einstein, a man able to reduce scientific theory to a sweet porridge that could be delivered one spoonful at a time. We can agree we should be grateful for Einstein’s insight – can’t we? Turning simplicity into an ideal encourages people with complex and important ideas to accommodate those of us who want to learn but take our time doing it.
Einstein’s idea comes to mind when reading Kurt Vonnegut’s classic eight rules of writing, a distillation of all that is important for aspiring writers. Some folks invest boatloads of effort into learning writing. Some spend years earning MFAs in creative writing, working to develop into people who can write Great Books. Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop where many promising writers realized their skills. He knew the value of being able to explain things to a six year old. We know this because of all that he fit into his famous Eight Rules. Every draft of every story you’ve ever written could be improved by evaluating every sentence in light of the Eight Rules. Worried you put in too much backstory? Should my protagonist be more fleshed out? See the rules.
First: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. Vonnegut says we must think of strangers as we write since they’re the ones we usually write for. These are people unlikely to have acquired warm and affectionate feelings for us. They read us only if they enjoy doing so or if we fill a need. Ask yourself: If you had to explain your father’s personality to a guy from Saskatchewan – a guy whose attention you urgently needed – how would you do it? If you didn’t want to bore the guy, you’d get right to the good parts. You wouldn’t use adverbs in series, nor would you start your story with details about Dad’s bathroom habits.
Second: Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Would you watch a televised, cage-style fight between two people you’d never heard of? For most people, probably not. Now, suppose one of those fighters is a twin brother your protagonist didn’t know he had? That’s some drama. Even a pacifist poet would watch that match.
Third: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Dramatic tension is essential to fiction the same way alcohol is essential to cocktails. A character’s unfulfilled want might be the purest kind of dramatic tension imaginable. With only a character and an idea – no plot or setting – you can grab and hold someone’s attention. Imagine this sentence as the opening of a novel you were considering for purchase: “Bobby longed to be like one of the normal boys.” The wants of a character, standing alone, can trigger evocative thoughts and emotions and they can prompt people to pick up your book and read it.
Fourth: Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action. Vonnegut’s belief in this idea might have been his core principle. When compared to other greats of literature, Vonnegut devotes far less attention to setting than he does to characters and plot. Commonly, if he reveals the setting, it’s related to development of characters and/or plot. In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut tells the reader that the events of his story take place in the following setting: on Earth when the global population was a disturbing 17 billion. When you read this, it’s easy to believe Vonnegut’s premise that all persons on Earth are required to take birth control or face imprisonment, a fact germane to the story’s plot. He uses a detail like setting primarily to drive the action, which is not only smart but it illustrates his Fourth Rule.
Fifth: Start as close to the end as possible. How many times have you thought: Will you get to the damn point, already? Being a good storyteller depends, in part, on your ability to identify the relevant and the captivating and to rely only on them. A bad storyteller is someone who spends two minutes describing the childhood of the uncle who once had a supremely funny moment.
Sixth: 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. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is still being read because of all the horrific things that happen to George and Lennie. That’s a large part of the reason the book is so memorable. Steinbeck didn’t need Vonnegut to know that he could captivate us with a series of unfortunate events involving poor and decent men doing the best they could.
Seventh: Write to please just one person. If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. Art needs to be unique to find an audience and it can’t be unique if it’s written for an audience. Those two ideas seem contradictory, and yet both are true. If your book is written with only your sister in mind, it would become unique in ways that many of us would appreciate, starting with the many who think like your sister. Nearly all people fit one or more patterns in the way they observe and interpret. By choosing one person to speak to, you can speak to a class of people.
Eighth: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what’s going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. This advice sounds like it could have come from a newspaper reporter. Indeed, Vonnegut was a reporter with the City News Bureau in Chicago while in college. It is (and was) typical for daily newspapers and other news outlets to have stories that start with the most important facts and to work their way to the least important facts.