I was discussing with some friends last week whether Chuck Palahniuk was the new Kurt Vonnegut. Statements like that always strike me as a bit of a cop-out, but I lack a better way to describe Mr. Palahniuk’s writing to people.
The discussion did remind me of Vonnegut’s rules for short stories, which I quite like. I think they apply to much more than just short stories, and here are my favorites (at the moment):
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
At the least! I’ve seen many screenplays now where every character is hard-boiled, mean, crazy, evil, or just generally unlikable. Even anti-heroes need something you can like about them, some way to identify with their plight. Even if your characters are an army of ninja serial killing robots, you have to find a way to make one of them somehow sympathetic.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Conflict. Every scene, every act, every chapter, everything needs to have some element of conflict in it. It’s the drama that drives interest in the tale. As Mr. Vonnegut says, it doesn’t have to be a cosmic battle, but if there isn’t some goal that a person is trying to reach, lose the scene.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
Here’s another one that carries well into screenwriting, but it is expanded to “Start late and finish early.” One of my most common edits when I rewrite is to trim the start and end of a scene. Don’t put every moment on screen (or in print). It leaves something to the reader’s imagination, and is rarely needed at all. If we don’t need to see the postman pull over, get out of his truck, and walk all the way up to the front door, start with them ringing the doorbell. Or start with the character opening the package.
I’d love to hear any thoughts on the list, and any items you like or hate!
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