Advice I’m following to write well
The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.
In less than five minutes, Kurt Vonnegut shows you how to connect to the widest possible audience.
In this 2005 video at kotke.org, the late author of Slaughterhouse Five, uses a chalkboard and a simple graphical axis to reveal the system behind great storytelling.
Profound. Original. Straightforward.
And because it’s Kurt Vonnuegut, mixed with humor and biting satire.
Here’s a taste from the video’s transcript:
I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G – I axis: good fortune – ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here – great prosperity, wonderful health up there.
Your average state of affairs here, in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].
This is the B – E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G – I axis].
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G – I axis].
You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole.
It’s somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.
Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B].
It’s somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” … [draws line downward]. “Shit!” … [draws line back up again]. And gets back up again.
How many movies can you think of that fit the first two graphs of Vonnuegut’s presentation? Every Disney movie ever made uses one of these two graphs.
It’s easier to think of movies that don’t fit those broad storylines.
Vonnuegut applies his system to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
You’ll never guess what the graph looks like.
People have been puzzling over Hamlet for more than 400 years. Vonnuegut nails it, at least for me he does. Can’t wait to reread the play.
And get back to that novel I’ve been writing the last six years. Maybe I should turn it into a movie script. Sell it to Disney. Thanks, Kurt!
Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well
- Daily Writing Tips
- Terribly Write
- The Slot: A Spot for Copy Editors
- The Writer’s Almanac Newsletter
- Writerly Life