To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007, the website Literary Hub posted excerpts from advice he offered writers over the years. It is wise and sensible advice, well worth reading if you have any interest in the craft.
For me, Vonnegut's most important point, which he repeats for emphasis, is this one:
When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
It seems like such a simple thing, yet it's so easy to overlook. Many aspiring writers seem to think that telling a story consists of saying that first this thing happened, and then this thing happened, and then the next thing happened ... But a mere sequence of events is not compelling. It gives the reader no reason to keep turning pages. What's needed is a motivation, a desire, a need. Our characters must yearn for something – something they can't get, at least immediately.
Nor is it enough to introduce this want or need later in the story. It has to be there from the beginning. Consider the typical "cozy" mystery of the type perfected by Agatha Christie. The characters' major need, ultimately, is to solve the murder. But the murder ordinarily doesn't take place until the book is well underway. How to hold the reader's interest in the meantime? Give the characters a variety of other, lesser wants and needs.
Sir Reginald Fotheringay wants desperately to marry the chambermaid, but knows his elderly Aunt Edna will disinherit him if he does. Aunt Edna's butler, Soames, is in desperate need of 100 pounds to replace the money that he stole from her purse and lost at the dog track; if she finds out it's missing, Soames will be sacked and ruined. Heyward Graspinghard, Edna's upwardly mobile neighbor, wants desperately to acquire Edna's property so he can expand his home into the showcase he craves, but the old girl sturbbornly refuses to sell.
And so on.
These mundane motivations are sufficient to carry the story forward until the bigger issue of Aunt Edna's murder is introduced. They also serve the ancillary purpose of providing the various characters with possible motives for doing away with poor Edna.
As a general rule, if a story is boring or seems to be going nowhere, it's because the characters don't have any urgent desires or needs.
Vonnegut also makes this related point:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.
It has become fashionable for sophisticates to disparage plots as formulaic. The late Siskel and Ebert both chronically complained about standardized Hollywood plots and how boring they were. One reason they waxed enthusiastic for My Dinner with Andre was its absence of a plot. Their favorite scene in Fargo was a dialogue exchange that had nothing to do with the plot; they singled it out for this very reason. And I can understand their frustration with predictable plots. I've gotten mighty tired of "the hero's journey" as the basis for pretty much every action/fantasy/sci-fi/historical movie of the last twenty years.
But in fact, plots really do serve a legitimate purpose. They give the reader (or viewer) some sense of where the story is going and therefore an additional reason to stick around. If the reader can't figure out where the story is headed, she may very well decide it's headed nowhere and give up.
Recently I did just that – gave up, I mean – on the TV series Better Call Saul, because as it begins its third season, it still seems to be heading nowhere in particular. The show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, and it features the attorney who, in that series, represented criminals and was essentially a criminal himself. The idea behind the prequel is that we meet this guy before he went over to the dark side.
I liked Better Call Saul when it started, because I thought I knew the general structure it would follow. In the first season, as I saw it, the main character would try to make it as a legitimate attorney, fail, and decide to pursue a shadier path. And in fact, the first season did seem to play out this way. When season two began, I expected to see the beginning of his transformation into the darker and more interesting character we'd come to know in Breaking Bad.
But it didn't happen. In season two, our character was still trying to make it as a legitimate attorney. No transformation yet ... Now it's season three, and guess what? He's still basically the same guy he was in season one. As Milhouse on The Simpsons might say, "Aren't we ever going to get to the fireworks factory?"
By this point in Better Call Saul, I have no idea what the structure is, and I suspect there is no structure, no master plan. Some will call the show "subtle" or "nuanced" or "realistic," but to me, it's just dull.
A story can tread water for only so long before sinking. If there's no destination in sight, the whole thing begins to feel like a pointless exercise. That's why plots – yes, even formulaic, generic plots – are usually necessary. And if you don't like formula, you can play with it. You can surprise the reader by upsetting his expectations. You can kill off the protagonist halfway through, as Hitchcock did in Psycho, to the great distress of the audience in 1960, who were totally unprepared for it. You can upend the stupid "hero's journey" by changing the rules. You can be creative and think outside the box – but first you've got to have a box, a plot. Without some kind of plot, you are likely to lose your reader very quickly.
I don't agree with everything Vonnegut says. There's this, for instance:
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.
I think I know what he's getting at here. Some writers have a tendency to withhold so much information that the reader is left at sea, unable to figure out who the characters are or what situation they're mixed up in. The trouble with Vonnegut's advice is that it could lead the unwary writer to make the opposite mistake – to dump a big pile of exposition into the story right at the start, when the better approach is to deftly weave background material into the story as it goes along. Excessive exposition in the early stages of the story is one of the most common and most easily avoided errors that inexperienced writers commit.
And naturally I have nothing against suspense as such. I write suspense novels, after all. Not all writers employ suspense as a technique – Shakespeare didn't – but most do, because most of us aren't Shakespeare.
Of course, most of us aren't Kurt Vonnegut either.
I also have nothing against semicolons, when used judiciously. Vonnegut seems to have despised them for idiosyncratic reasons. I've used a couple of them in this post, and I have no regrets.
Vonnegut was a world-class writer and, if I can judge by these excerpts, one hell of a teacher as well. Read his advice and take it to heart. Maybe you'll never write Slaughterhouse-Five, but your next letter to the editor will pack a punch!