Tucked into the grab-bag collection of loose ends that is Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, you will find eight rules for writing a short story. Shortly after Vonnegut's passing, I passed these out to a classroom full of screenwriters, because it seemed to me that the rules applied to the crafting of screenplays as well. Herewith, Mr. V's rules, and a little commentary to make clear their connections to movie work, using quotes from movie folk to show that Great Minds Think Alike (GMTA).
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Oh, but that more writers observed this golden rule! We-the-readers always know when we are bored. Just take note of how the lead sentence of a given screenplay can instantly stop you from reading further, unless it somehow grabs your attention with a "you need to know this!" subtext. What does not waste a stranger's time is something that can take writers years of learning on the job to master, but the point is that simply thinking about this issue -- i.e. will this hold someone else's attention? -- is a worthy pursuit, indeed. GMTA: I'm reminded of screenwriter Callie Khouri's immortal quote, "If you have information on the screen that doesn't move the story forward, you are taking moments away from people's lives."
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Save the cat or pet the dog: screenwriters have a protagonist perform a simple act that embodies a positive value, so that the audience can identify with him or her. They also apply the principle of "unearned suffering": If a little girl loves her dolly, and a bully snatches it, don't you want to see the little girl get her dolly back? This holds especially true for characters who are seemingly unsympathetic. As (GMTA) screenwriter Richard LaGravenese said: "All destructive people have an inner side to them, and the more three-dimentional your characters are on screen the more compassion you can open up in an audience... To me, that involves the audience more, it stimulates them and asks more of them."
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Time and time again, I've addressed the rewrite of a given scene, my own or a client's, with this same simple question: What does each character want? Failing to define this is nine times out of ten what leads to fuzzy and unfocused writing. Put two characters in a scene with unclear actions to achieve and you risk losing your audience. If the characters don't care about getting something while they're in it, why should we? Billy Wilder's maxim (GMTA) "Develop a clean line of action for your leading character" speaks to this; "I want to get a glass of water" suggests one clean and powerful line of action.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
Because what else is it doing there, describing scenery? Fine, if the scenery is speaking to character ("His furniture was as cheap as he was") or moving the story along ("The woods are quiet tonight -- too quiet!"). Otherwise? Zzzzzzz... A good story, lyrical though it may be, functions like a shark: it must keep swimming forward to keep breathing. GMTA: Here's producer Lindsay Doran on the subject -- "Scheherezade was a woman who had to make her stories so interesting she didn't get killed that night. That's exactly how I feel. We all have to keep our stories so interesting that... if the reel suddenly broke, everybody would rather die than leave that theater and not be able to find out what happened next."
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
Screenwriter's credo: Come in late and leave early. The awful truth about most screenwriters' exposition is that it's for them -- for them to know. The audience doesn't need all that. In the opening scene of The Godfather, the Godfather is the Godfather. Period. And the movie's story begins when his successor-to-be enters the story: Michael Corleone comes home. Everything we need to know about everyone in the story gets dealt out to us, economically, as events irrevocably move towards the crisis that will cause the passing of the torch from father to son. GMTA: Two rules from Mr. Wilder again -- "Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go" and "Know where you're going."
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 love this rule. It's so cruel-but-true. "What's the worst thing that could happen?" is such a time-honored screenwriters' maxim that it even became the title of a bad movie. We don't want to see characters have a sort-of blah day, we want to see the most horrible day of their lives. As Vonnegut shrewdly points out, calamity and crisis is the fastest, most powerful route to revealing character. GMTA: Screenwriter Audrey Wells told my romantic comedy class, "Steep your characters in pain--make them miserable. Then after they've really suffered, make them happy."
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.
Re: the movies, this is obvious, yet many a screenplay has fallen on this sword: trying to please "them." There is no Them. Half the time They -- e.g. the studios, who sometimes can't see a hit when it smacks them in the face (see: everyone who turned down Star Wars) -- don't even know what Them (i.e. that ever-elusive fickle "mainstream audience") wants to see. Vonnegut told NPR that he wrote to please his late sister Allie. You may write to please yourself or any other one person, but it's this choice -- your own personal "ideal audience" -- that will focus your work and cohere its voice, not trying to be all things to all people. GMTA: As Paramount's Kathie Fong Yoneda noted in an on-line interview, "Frequently, the writer who tries to add 'something for everyone' ends up pleasing no one."
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 last one is tricky to translate, in that often suspense is exactly what a screenwriter is (and should be) after. I think what Mr. Vonnegut is speaking to is the issue of clarity. Many pre-pro screenwriters waste a reader's time by being coy and cagey with the simple and necessary facts of who, where, when, what and why. There's a difference between withholding -- which too often promotes confusion -- and dealing it out slowly. The audience needs to be oriented in time and space, and quickly involved in a character's issues to stay with a story. GMTA: He wasn't a screenwriter, but he was an idol of Kurt's who surely had the definitive take on this. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." -- Mark Twain
(All typewriter photos from Laineys Repertoire)