Kurt Vonnegut’s Story Tips (Applied to Screenwriting)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote several popular books including “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle.” Before he wrote novels, he wrote short stories. Since he studied stories most of his life, he came up with eight tips for writing a story:

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

While Kurt Vonnegut made these guidelines for short story and novel writers, they also apply to screenwriters as well.

First, assume someone picks up your screenplay and starts reading a page at random. Will the information on the page convince that person to keep reading?

What too many screenwriters do is that they write lots of scenes that do nothing but provide exposition without any sense of drama or tension. Then they have a handful of scenes that provide drama and tension. That means huge chunks of the screenplay are essentially wasted in telling a story.

So first, make sure every part of your screenplay can grab someone’s attention. if you can do that, your entire screenplay should pull a reader from start to finish without them feeling like they’re wasting their time.

Second, make sure every scene has a character pursuing a clear goal. That goal may be mysterious to us at first, but the screenwriter should know what that goal is.

In then opening scene of “Die Hard,” we have no idea why John McClane is flying into Los Angeles, but the purpose is clear. He’s flying to attend his wife’s corporate Christmas party and try to get back together with her.

So this opening scene shows John McClane terrified from the flight and a fellow passenger trying to calm him down.

Vonnegut also mentions that “Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.”

In a screenplay, that means every description, character action, and dialogue must reveal character or advance the action.

Far too many screenplays ignore this, which means either creating a generic scene or creating a repetitive scene that doesn’t reveal anything new about a character or advance the action in the story in anyway.

Always assume a reader will pick up your screenplay at a page at random. Now knowing nothing about your story, will your screenplay on page 38 or page 72 be interesting? If not, then go back and rewrite your screenplay so it is interesting.

By following Kurt Vonnegut’s story guidelines, you can help improve the quality of your own screenplay.

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