In this post, playwright, dramaturg and LPW script reader, Nika Obydzinski discusses how Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing can be used as a toolbox for playwrights…
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr’s groundbreaking masterpiece Slaughterhouse-5, his third novel. Before he became a novelist, Vonnegut cut his teeth as a successful short story writer. The American magazine market paid handsomely for short stories in the 1940s and 50s, and for many years this is how Vonnegut made his living, crafting what would become a uniquely acerbic, yet humane, writing voice.
In the introduction to his second short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box, Vonnegut discusses his development as a writer, and the lessons he learned while writing for the short story market, culminating in his ‘8 Rules for Writing.’ The rules as written concern prose, but I have found them immensely useful in my work as a script reader, dramaturg, and playwright. With a little bit of interpretation, I think they likewise work extremely well as a toolbox for playwrights, including Vonnegut’s playful twist of a postscript. And please note I refer to them as a toolbox, and not a set of hard and fast rules!
So here I present them to you, in the hopes that they might help you the way they continue to help me. But a quick note before I do: this guide (mostly) concerns stories that are told in a ‘conventional,’ linear style. I fully acknowledge that much prose and theatrical storytelling is not written in such a conventional form. That is not my area of expertise, nor will I try to tackle it – and if concept-driven work is more your thing, why not give the following a read anyway? Hopefully you’ll find something you can use in it – the last rule, at the very least.
1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
This needn’t mean someone ‘good,’ of course – JERUSALEM’s Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron makes some choices that we might find questionable, but we also find it hard to dislike him, and we root for him right to the end.
This also doesn’t *need* to be your leading character. Often this takes the form of the character I like to call ‘the guide.’ Sometimes they are a lead character, but often they are a supporting role, acting as the moral compass of the play – think Horatio or Banquo. They are the character the audience can connect to when the hero/ine is behaving badly.
The point is, we need someone we can invest in emotionally, someone we care about, someone we want to see succeed, or someone taking us on this journey that we can get behind.
2. Every character should want something, even if it is just a glass of water.
Nothing slows the pace of a play more effectively than characters who don’t want anything, or who aren’t working to get something. The actions they take in service of getting what they want is what drives the plot. If it helps you to structure it, you can break it down: a character should have an overall objective (Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s death,) as well as micro-objectives along the way that will help them reach their overall goal (Hamlet wants the players to perform ‘The Mousetrap’ in order to make Claudius feel guilty and give himself away.)
Naturally, dialogue for the sake of dialogue can be extremely enjoyable, and a very fine dramatist can bury motivations and strategies within engaging, witty, or sharp dialogue. The opening scene of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a thrilling semantic teacup ride, but both men still want something: mainly, to work out why the coin keeps coming up heads. Something in their world has gone awry, and they can’t work out what. But they want to.
3. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
This rule might be my favourite, and it can feel like a tricky one to apply to writing for the theatre. After all, every sentence is dialogue, therefore every line of dialogue must do one these two things. It can feel, initially, like a big ask, or like a path towards either raw exposition or farce.
One element that performance contains which prose does not is the presence of human beings. In addition to dialogue, we also have body language, and the interplay between dialogue and silence. Harold Pinter’s dialogue is notorious for its punctuation marks of pauses, beats, and hiatuses. These moments of silence form both a lyrical rhythm within the tension, but also do their bit to tell us something about character, and to advance the action. In ‘Killing Eve,’ Villanelle’s smirks tell us whether her sudden expression of humanity is genuine (usually not.)
But this rule is best explored through dialogue itself. Let’s briefly look at Macbeth’s dagger speech. I won’t burden you with the entire speech here, but I do urge you to have a look at it in its entirety and see how it operates within this rule. Every sentence obeys: Macbeth questions his own mental state through the vision of the dagger – thus revealing character. He is anxious, a little thrilled, but wary of the vision. He tells the dagger: ‘Thou marshall’st me towards where I was going, and such an instrument I was to use’ – the action here advances, as Macbeth observes the dagger is leading him towards Duncan’s murder, and is the very weapon he intends on using.
Try it for yourself: take a play off your bookshelf, flip open a page, and read a few lines of dialogue whilst actively thinking about this rule. Go sentence by sentence: first, decide if the sentence reveals character or advances the action. If it feels difficult to do at first, consider the sentence in the wider context of the scene. If the character is making a declaration of fact, for example, are they doing so in order to maintain their status in the room? That reveals character. Is a character asking a question? This could be advancing the action if the question’s answer changes the plot, changes someone’s goals, motives, or tactics, or if the question leads the other character(s) towards or away from vital information. The question – how it is asked, what it is asking, what the answer is or what they expect it to be – can also reveal character.
4. Start as close to the end as possible.
You’d be surprised how little set-up you really need. In Marsha Norman’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Night, Mother, Jessie comes home, asks her mother Thelma for her late father’s gun, and announces that she will be ending her own life today with that very gun. The play takes place in real time: Thelma pleads with her daughter to re-consider, whilst Jessie busies herself with cleaning and list-making in between laying out the reasons for ending her own life.
The play starts as close to the end as possible – Jessie announces she will kill herself as soon as she is done tidying up her affairs with her mother. We do not see scenes from the life that Jessie claims is going nowhere, nor do we see her making this decision. The life is lived, the decision is made. Now there is only *action* to be taken. Nor do we see scenes from the family’s early life which are referenced within the play, because ultimately they are details rather than action that contributes to the plot.
Likewise, Hamlet doesn’t begin when Hamlet, over in Wittenberg, finds out about his father’s death – it begins when he returns to Danish soil and can begin taking action to avenge his father.
5. 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 really love this rule, because it’s the one that really pushes me. When I reflect on my own work, I can see that the writing itself has improved the more I have been willing to push my characters, to see what they do when confronted with difficult decisions. It can be easy to fall in love with them once created, especially if you craft them before you construct their story. Someone once said to ‘kill your darlings,’ but this can mean challenging our darlings, disrupting their lives and helping them grow.
It’s sometimes important to remember that, although it can be pleasurable to come to the theatre to see characters living their everyday lives, truly affecting and cathartic theatre comes from stories that bring their characters to the edge, that push them into a transformative journey. The success of ‘Breaking Bad,’ in my opinion, rests on this rule: it took a dull suburban man, it made an awful thing happen to him, and through his response, we found out what he was made of. It made us wonder if we would be capable of the same.
The ‘awful’ things Vonnegut prescribes here needn’t be on an epic scale. Consider Yerma, the Lorca play updated to devastating effect a few years ago with Billie Piper in the title role. The core of this play is largely metaphysical. Yerma and her husband long ago agreed that their partnership would be childless – but now her body is telling her differently. She suddenly wants a baby, and her husband doesn’t. The journey she goes on is tortured, painful, and tragic – and much of it comes from within her own mind and from her relationship to her body, rather than from epic external forces like war or monsters.
6. 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.
Vonnegut explains in other works that everything he ever wrote, he wrote for his sister. Every joke was constructed to make her laugh, specifically. The fact that the rest of us laugh is a fortunate side effect.
The notion of the muse is as old as Greek mythology, but Vonnegut has a point. If you write to please just one person, you will probably end up pleasing a lot of other people, for a lot less effort.
Or, in the more modern words of Magid Magid, the last Lord Mayor of Sheffield and recently elected Green MEP: ‘If you’re trying to be everyone’s cup of tea, you might as well be a mug.’
7. Give your reader 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 rule may possibly be the most controversial, and potentially the most difficult to reconcile or apply when it comes to creating theatre, so we’re going to spend a little bit of time unpacking it.
For a start, giving ‘as much information as possible as soon as possible’ is quite challenging in theatre: in a fourth-wall play, this information must be deployed through naturalistic dialogue. Direct address has an easier ride here, but an audience must likewise not feel they are being lectured to, nor must they be overwhelmed with too much information, too quickly. Then there is suspense, the key to keeping our living, breathing audience interested. How does a playwright manage all that?
Let’s start with suspense. The precedent is strong: Greek and Elizabethan plays usually come laden with a prophecy in the opening minutes, meaning we know where we will end up, or what fate will befall the characters. But – we don’t know exactly how we will get there, or if the prophet can be trusted, and *that* may just be the suspense the viewer stays for. The witches tell Macbeth that he will be king, and we stay to see how he deals with that, how he becomes king, and what that does to him and to his marriage. We already know things probably won’t go well, because the witches have also told us that it’s not *his* children who will become kings, but Banquo’s.
In Night, Mother, Jessie tells her mother Thelma that she plans to kill herself today. For the rest of the play, we wait to see if Thelma manages to talk her out of it.
In an even more up-to-date example, I consider ‘Breaking Bad’ to be quite Greek in its outcome. Not only did Walter White get exactly what was coming to him, that ending was prophesied – it just came in a different form to the one he was given at the start of series one. In a sense, we can always finish Walter’s story, should cockroaches eat the last of the Netflix – we always knew it wasn’t going to end well for him, but we watch to see how that ending comes to pass… and a small part of us waits to see if he really will pull it off.
Chekhov likewise gave us a useful tool in our arsenal for this rule: if there is a loaded gun on stage, it needs to be fired by the end of the play. This axiom works well for suspense, but also for information: the presence of the gun wordlessly tells us something about what is going to happen in this play.
Chekhov’s gun is a great way to explore the interplay between information and suspense. If you only include the information that is vital to the plot, then your audience can begin to piece things together for themselves, which can build suspense in a very satisfying way for them. Dispense with information that isn’t relevant – everything should connect, without too much extra fat. Like the gun, information isn’t necessarily dialogue – it is also props, costume, setting, mood, and character.
8. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that [they] will not feel the time was wasted.
Vonnegut normally puts this rule first, with good reason. We’ve all, at some point, reached the end of a book, a play, or a film, and thought, ‘Well, there’s X hours of my life I’ll never get back.’
I probably don’t need to explain this one, really. But I’ll expand on it a little bit.
On the face of it, this rule is purely subjective – each individual will have a different metric for what constitutes ‘time well-spent.’ We’ve already been urged to write to please just one person, so how should we go about applying a rule to not waste anyone’s time?
Some forms of performance, like sitcoms or soap operas, can be pure entertainment. And people who feel they have been entertained usually feel that their time has not been wasted. Maybe they want something funny and light, or fluffy and brainless at the end of a long day. This can work well for television, but theatre is different – theatre is an event. We leave the comfort of our homes to join strangers in a room to hear a story.
For every script I read, I will ask the question: why did the writer write this play? What is the message? What is the point? Why have we gathered in a room to hear this story? And if I can’t answer that question, then perhaps something is missing. A play can be competently crafted: it can be well-structured, with motivated characters, and engaging dialogue. I’ve read plays just like this, and I have gotten to the end and asked: So what? Why are we here? Why has this been a valuable use of our time?
I want to interrupt myself here to take on the case of farce, which may appear on the surface to not have much to say. But I disagree. Yes, farce is highly entertaining, but I think that we find it satisfying because our lives can feel so farcical at times. Life is messy, often fast-paced, and sometimes we lose total control of it; but underneath there is an invisible sense of order, a counterforce to the entropy. It’s why we find ourselves saying ‘It’ll all work out in the end.’
In short, I want something we can all take home at the end of the night, something to talk about, to debate, to laugh about, on the train ride home. It needn’t be a world-changing morality lesson. It can still be just about pure entertainment. But we must walk away feeling that it was worth it.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but [the last.] Great writers tend to do that.
By this point, I imagine you have thought of your own examples of plays or prose that break some or many of the above rules (my favourite Vonnegut short story spectacularly breaks the information and suspense rule.) For me, the key is that you must know the rule – possibly even have it mastered – before you break it, and you must break it thoroughly, and purposefully. Those of us raised in Western cultures were nourished with storytelling forms that generally follow the above rules (and if you’re interested in reading more about those forms and how they inform Western storytelling today, then I recommend the book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.) These forms are likewise what the audience know and recognise, so in order to make your story legible, your story ought to follow these rules, or it ought to conscientiously and judiciously break them, with purpose.
Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘8 rules for writing’ can be found in the introduction to his short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box.
Nika has been part of the literary team at Theatre503 for several years, presently as a senior reader and reader for the 503 Playwriting Award. She previously managed the King’s Head Theatre literary department, where she also project managed the Adrian Pagan Award for new writing, and twice served as a judge for the Stella Wilkie Award. She is a currently part of our Script Consulting team, find out more about our Script Consulting Services here.