The Old Chuck Palahniuk’s Rules For Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

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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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About Jeff Moriarty

A dabbler in many arts, from Ignite Phoenix to Improv, and from Information Security to Screenwriting. Jeff loves creating new things, and tries his hand at many forms of writing from screenplays to prose. He pontificates on his personal blog, and helps authors get their works online.


  1. I like number three especially.

  2. grindhouse says

    I agree with you that stating Chuck P. is the “new Vonnegut” is a bit of a cop out (especially since the term “new” connotes a replacement and Kurt V.’s works are still relevant). I have only read a few of Palahniuk’s books; while I see the similarities in the genre-blending and satiric reflections on society, I don’t hear the same melodious turns of phrase that I remember from reading Vonnegut. Perhaps “heir apparent to the traditions of Vonnegut” would be more apropos?

    As to the list of rules, thanks for sharing those. I went and digested the whole thing. My personal favorite is number four – “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”. It would be quite a feat to strive for adherence on that one. But given that the context is the short story, it makes sense. And it translates to the screenplay as well if you substitute the word “scene” for “sentence”.


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