Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules and Improv

In the series of tenuous relationships between improv and other stuff I was recently reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing when listening to a Pendragon Variety podcast (it’s not a porn magazine, it’s a Fantasy writing website. This isn’t getting any less porny is it?). You may/should be aware of Vonnegut (if you’re not you can always read Wikipedia), the genius author of Slaughterhouse 5 amongst many other splendid, dark science fiction-esque novels.

There are two sets of rules, the earlier and simpler Seven Rules and later the more fleshed out Eight Rules. They apply well in writing; they apply spectacularly well to improv. The usual rules of agreement and so on are very useful but they don’t tell you much about story structure and character – Vonnegut does, simply and effectively. The two sets are quite different but I think there are several in each list which should be useful for improvisors. I was going to only list a few but every time I read them I find different items more relevant and entertaining, so here’s the lot. Bear in mind that they’re written for writing, so substitute ‘reader’ for ‘audience member’. As rules they should be used, bent and broken often – but not all of them, or all of the time. My absolute favourites are 7 from the Seven and 6 from the Eight. But that’s just me.

The Seven Rules

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

The Eight Rules

  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 hell 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.

Apply them, use them. Even better, let’s talk about them and why they’re so bloody good and insightful. For starters, I least like rule 8…

In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures from the show last Friday (featuring Lloydie, Trilly, Dan, Nick, Martin and Marilyn):

You can see them all on Google+ – thanks to G-Man for the photos!

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