The Rules of Writing: Vonnegut v. Wilder
These two men, Author Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions) and Screenwriter Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot), are two very different writers who wrote in two very different mediums. But in their lives, both men offered some of the best and most concise advice on writing that I’ve ever found.
Below are Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction and Wilder’s 10 Screenwriting Tips. Whether you write for the page, the screen, the monitor, or just for yourself, you’ll find more than a few nuggets of wisdom here that you can apply to your own work.
Pay attention to the styles the axioms are written in and how the differences in voice reflect each writer’s unique approach to writing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Billy Wilder’s 10 Screenwriting Tips
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.