“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

Three Tips to Write Like Kurt Vonnegut

This guest post is by my friend Jesse Cozean. Jesse recently published his first book, My Grandfather’s War, about his relationship with his grandfather who fought in World War II. Check out the book on Jesse’s website, jessecozean.com, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Kurt Vonnegut

Photo by Don East West

Count me as one of those people who think that the unfortunately late Kurt Vonnegut is a modern reincarnation of Mark Twain.  His books and short stories are littered with barbed, humorous, and wickedly honest advice about the process of writing.  Perhaps my favorite piece of wisdom that he bestows is this: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.  All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Of course, then he goes on to use one at the end of that same book, making the point that Rules only take us so far, even good rules.  Without any further ado, my three favorite rules from Kurt Vonnegut.  So it goes.

1. Start as close to the end as possible.

We, as writers, tend to see connections between events that others gloss over.  That’s what makes for good writing, but also makes it difficult for the reader to stay involved.  This rule is one that is universally followed by good plot-based writers (think Tom Clancy or John Grisham), who almost always have the crisis develop within the first few pages, and certainly within the first chapter.

To make this advice work, the “end” must be defined before the piece is written.  What are you trying to leave the reader with?  What is the final event in the plot?  After you decide on your ending, see how close to that ending you can begin the story.

2. Every sentence should do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

This piece of advice plays constantly through my mind when I edit my writing.  Vonnegut was famous for being a perfectionist, carefully selecting every word and eliminating the extraneous.  If you read through his works, the one thing you will never find is fluff.

Editors typically describe this process as tightening.  Strip out the unnecessary details and wasted words that get in the way of what you really want to say.

And if you can follow the first two rules, the third follows naturally…

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

Enough said!


Does your work in progress begin as close to the end as possible? How could you start closer to the end?

Start writing a scene as close to the end of your story as possible. Write for fifteen minutes. When you finish, post your practice in the comments.

And if you post, be sure to comment on a few other pieces.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Marianne Vest

    Dale waited at the back of the church and watched as the first people arrived. You could count the ones that Walter knew on your fingers. Anna Lee was there in her loose caftan, feathers in her hair, talking with Evelyn in her suit and pearls. The Perkins were there and Craig. But it was the boys that broke her heart, grown men, they stood crying because their childhood friend, their Puff, was lost. She went to them, hugged them, and asked them to escort her to the front row.
    She looked at the coffin before the altar and wondered where Walter was. Was he watching and wondering where he fit in, like a person too late for the parade trying to fall into the already assembled ranks?
    She heard the rest of the town fill the church. She heard them whispering, felt their frowns. She was glad Walter wasn’t there and hoped he was in a place that the timid didn’t have to shy away from, that the didn’t have to hesitate to enter, and she hoped someone was holding his hand.

    • KatieAxelson

      Great practice, Marianne! It’s so sad and yet so honest. I only have one question: is Dale a woman?


      • Marianne Vest

        Dale is a woman. She is his great-niece. Do you think I should spell it differently. It was used as a woman’s name in the fifties (it’s my cousins middle name) but maybe it’s only used for men now.

        • If this was the whole piece, then I’d say yes. Since it’s part of a larger piece (which I’m guessing it is), I wouldn’t worry about it. Just be very clear in the beginning.


      • Marianne Vest


        I can’t answer your last post under that post for some reason. I was thinking the same thing, that i need to make her sex clear at the beginning, after reading your remark. The book opens with Dale. I’ll just start with something like “Dale, a tall, silver-haired, woman, saw the dogs before she got to the gate ” rather than “Dale saw the dogs before she got to the gate”. Thanks very much for that remark. I never thought of that and I did like the name Dale for her.

        I hate figuring out names. I don’t like the ones I pick most of the time, then I change them using “find and replace’ under the edit tab and sometimes that doesn’t work just right. Some people have a real talent for picking just the right names. I might make her Gale or Gayle instead, but she’s very introverted/quiet, and Gale makes me think of a gale like a high noisy wind. Hazel was my first choice but my husband says only really old women are named Hazel. Dale is about 60. What do you think of Hazel or Sylvia?

        • I think “Dale saw the dogs before SHE got to the gate” is clear. Although, don’t take my word for where to put character descriptions. I tend to avoid them altogether.

          I’m so grateful for “find and replace.” The first time I “filed a name change” (that’s what I call it), I didn’t know about that feature. It makes it a whole lot easier!

          A book I’m editing right now has a character Haziel, and she’s young. It did trip me up for awhile because her mother has a “young person name.” There’s Gail, too.I think I like Dale because it’s different. You could go to babynames.com and search names that were popular in the decade Dale was born to give you some ideas.


          • Didn’t Julia Roberts name one of her kids Hazel?

          • Yvette Carol

            Or use a female type spelling of it, like Dayal?

        • Marianne Vest

          This is to Tom – I didn’t know that, but maybe it’s one of those names that’s coming back into style. It was the name of the mother of one of my childhood friends. It has kind of a woodsy sound to me that I like.

    • Yvette Carol

      Marianne, you have a gift.

      • Marianne Vest

        Thank you Yvette. I was just thinking that I cannot write so that remark came right on time and from someone I respect.

        • Yvette Carol

          No worries Marianne. And I’m feeling you, just been there in fact. Day before last I had a super duper bad day, a real humdinger, brought on by an altercation with my mother. I was as flat as a pancake right through to the next morning. Have a hot drink and if you can, a chat with someone. That’s what helped me over it 🙂

      • Marianne Vest

        That wasn’t meant to sound whiney when I said I was feeling down about my writing. I know it’s something we all go through and I know I can do it but today was just a day that I couldn’t get out what I wanted to say in any kind of clear fashion. I should have just said thank you.

      • Agreed.

  • Marianne Vest

    sorry the formatting disappeared there.

  • Marianne Vest

    Darn the last line should read ” that they didn’t have to shy away from”

  • Bill Polm

    Excellent advice from Vonnegut, Jesse, Joe.
    I wasn’t aware he wrote a book/essay on writing. Did he?
    So many books, so little time!

    • I believe these tips came from the preface of one of his books of short stories, although I could be wrong.

  • Love #3! Awesome!

  • Wanda Kiernan

    I took the advise and started my story closer to the end. Here’s my practice.

    Vanessa, Victoria, and Nathan stared at the only door left to go through. Would they finally find their way out of the abandoned castle, or were they destined to travel through time and feel lost for the rest of their lives?

    But the twins were feeling particularly lucky today since it was their 15th birthday, and their adventures started exactly a year ago. They looked guiltily at their little brother, and remembered how they dragged him along that day. All he wanted to do was finish his art project.

    ……Story would continue with what happened on that day a year ago.

    • Marianne Vest

      That makes sense and a is a fairly commonly used convention. Good luck with your story.

    • Yvette Carol

      I didn’t realize you wrote for children too Wanda. Sisters in arms!

  • akaellisfisher

    . Great post.

    (that’s as close to the end as I could manage)

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  • Yvette Carol

    My characters grow so much throughout the course of the book, esp. the protagonist Aden Weaver, that I’m not sure how to put that at the start of the book.
    I used one of those difficult, controversial ways of starting the book, with a dreaded prologue. And I thought I’d been a bit clever, by foreshadowing a little of what was to come there, through the device of the boy’s grandfather looking back.

    But I won a critique with the amazing Kristen Lamb of the first 1250 words of my book. She said, ‘I don’t see any point for what the character is remembering other than a way to “hook” but your story should do that. This is a false suspense. We need to know who ‘they” are fairly quickly or it looks like a contrived way to hook the reader. I would rather you show not tell. Normal world….BAM something happens and the reader wonders who “they’ are along with the characters.’

    So from that I had rather gotten the idea that I needed to take out all the foreshadowing altogether and just get straight into the story?

    Now you’re saying that the best way is to foreshadow? I’m confused. Can you put a few more words to it?

    • Marianne Vest

      I took Vonnegut’s remark to mean to write the actual end of the story and then get as close to that as you can to make it a good story and not have a lot of filling. I meant my piece to be the actual end of the book (which will come in handy since I can never figure out how to end my short stories once I get there). I think foreshadowing is expected in some kinds of literature like suspense and mystery and not in others like some literary things. I have only read a few Vonnegut books and I don’t remember foreshadowing in Cat’s Cradle or Bluebeard and I can’t even remember the plot of Slaughterhouse Five now.

      • Yvette Carol

        Ah, now that helps a lot! Thanks Marianne.

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