Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Basic Rules of Creative Writing

As craft nerds at Writing Workshops Detroit, we love writing advice and we love Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of Creative Writing. These come from the preface to his story collection Bagombo Snuff Box:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  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.

  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.

  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.

Vonnegut said the greatest American short story writer of his generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). He said she broke every one of his rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that. And all great writers had to start somewhere. If you’re thinking about joining a community of writers, check out our classes (In-Person & Online) in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Screenwriting via the button below.

Why Take a Screenwriting Class? by Ted Houser

A screenwriting class will give you the tools to turn your idea into a finished script.

Sometimes when I’m out in the world and I mention to someone that I’m a filmmaker, they respond by giving me their screenplay pitch- “I’ve got this great idea for a movie.” I’m quite used to it by now. Although I’ve heard my share of bad ideas, many of these ideas actually turn out to be good ones. I know it's a good idea if it grabs my attention and makes me want to read it as a finished script.

But how does this person actually write that script from their original idea? The process can be a very long and lonely journey. Some people choose to start that journey entirely on their own. Anyone can do it; it usually involves throwing some money down on the program Final Draft and buying one of 10,000 books on screenwriting. Others choose to go to film school or take a class on screenwriting.

So why should someone take a class on screenwriting?

A good screenwriting class will help you with many things. It'll teach you basics like screenplay structure and formatting, and it will also teach you more essential things, like how to channel your own personal expression into your work. A good instructor will work as both a teacher and a coach to fulfill the potential of your good idea.

Also, writers are born procrastinators (I’m speaking from personal experience) so an added benefit of my Writing Workshops Detroit Screenwriting Class is that there’s a structure to it: we meet once a week for 8 weeks. This structure and community-like setting will keep you motivated and help you finish what you start. As I said earlier, it’s a long journey to turn an idea into a screenplay. I’ve been teaching screenwriting for many years and I hope I can start you on your journey of finishing your first screenplay.  

The Starting Point – Short Screenplay Writing by Toni Cunningham

Why short screenplays?

This is a question I asked myself when I was putting together my workshop description for Writing Workshops Detroit.  Why not “writing strong female characters” or “writing well-rounded minority characters”. While the answer is pretty clear for me, keep an eye out, as those are two additional topics that I would love to tackle. In the meantime, I can not underplay the importance of short screenplays in my journey.

Shorts are at the crux of how I learned to write screenplays. When you sit down to outline a 90-page feature, there are specific rules you need to follow. Plot points, page breaks, timeline beats – and all of those things can be overwhelming if it is your first time trying to structure a story. Shorts allow you to hit the main aspects of storytelling and perfect them before moving on to something a bit more challenging, like a feature or a pilot.

In How to Get to The End: A Short Screenwriting Seminar, the aim is to remove all of the outlying obstacles from your path and just concentrate on the story. By providing three prompts, it forces you to narrow in on the specifics very early on while brainstorming. Beyond that, a 5-page short does not allow for a lot of superfluous detail and description. It depends on you to quickly and skillfully get to the point. You will find that you are self-editing as you go, making cuts that might be painful, but in the end, necessary. Your story will thank you.

If you are a filmmaker or an aspiring filmmaker, a short can be your best calling card. Think about that when brainstorming or outlining. Keep a budget in mind. Maybe your short takes place in one location, with fewer than 3 characters. Or perhaps, you are more concerned with being known for your writing alone. In that case, create a world worthy of a Peter Jackson budget and throw caution to the wind. Either way, know what you want to do before your fingers ever hit the keyboard.

Obviously, a 3-hour seminar is not a ton of time to write a short. However, it is just enough time to get your first draft written. Don’t worry if you are over on pages or if you are unable to finish. Just know that you have dedicated this time to be create something out of nothing and be proud of what you have accomplished.

Feedback is one of the most important things a screenwriter can receive. And if your goal is to work through Hollywood, you better believe you will get a ton of it. With that in mind, I will encourage students to share their stories with the rest of the class via email for everyone to read on their own time and give notes. You are not required to do this, but it is an option. Everyone who sends me their short at the end of the workshop will receive full coverage on it within 2 weeks.

I can’t wait to get started! Hope to see you there. .