Vonnegut’s tips

  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.

Points of view are flexible

The main point of any point of view has to be not confusing readers; that’s so central it often goes without saying. In my efforts not to be confusing, however, I sometimes don’t allow myself to see some of the possible flexibility points of view provide. Crossing to Safety, for example, is clearly in first person, but consider these sentences:

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?”

Suppose they are sitting on Aunt Emily’s porch, looking down across waist-high ferns and raspberry bushes to the lake. It is a day of traveling clouds. The porch is a sheltered pocket, though the wind is strong enough to scrape limbs across the roof.

Almost without exception, the next thirty-four pages are the first-person narrator providing readers with details of the inner lives of other characters. The narrator does remind readers periodically that he is imagining these inner lives. Contrasts between the narrator’s suppositions and the actual inner lives of characters (as they might have been revealed by dialogue) aren’t obvious.

The next time I write in first person, I’ll use this sort of narrator.

(What’s a good name for it, by the way? Not omniscient, because the narrator doesn’t really claim to know those inner lives. Unreliable doesn’t seem quiet right, either.)