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.
We’re taught the value of the all-encompassing twist and the shocking blindside (in TV, that’s literal. Think of how many shows have relied on literal blindsides—there are two in the first season of Chuck alone. Hi, Nemesis and Intersect!). We’re taught that we must be cleverer than our audiences, that we must stun and dazzle and amaze at all costs. Keeping the suspense up to the last possible second is the most important thing about writing ever, according to today’s standards.
Vonnegut, here, is saying differently.
Look, there is something to be said for suspense. Lord knows, I’ve written suspenseful stories myself (or at least I hope they’re suspenseful). I’ve walked that tight-rope between giving away too much information and feeding the audience not enough because I don’t want to spoil my twist, for the better part of eighteen months. And the truth is: I can’t tell you what the secret is to differentiating between the two. It’s a line you have to decide for yourself, and it’s one of those things that comes with practice.
Vonnegut’s rule is about when your need for suspense is destroying the honesty in your story. I believe stories, at their core, should be honest. Stories grab us because of the human condition; we see things in the characters that we find sympathetic or compelling. Resigning ourselves to cheap tricks and flash-in-the-pan writer is robbing a story of the honest truth underneath (mxpw’s note: It’s like when you write a story and something talks like a duck, walks like a duck, acts like a duck for 800 pages, but you reveal it’s a dog on page 801, that’s not honest).
Now “as much information as possible” is the deciding factor in this rule, and it goes back to that tightrope I was talking about earlier. Keep in mind in this series that writing is the ultimate act of vanity: it’s telling your audience that they should pay attention to you because you’re important enough for their time. So you want to be faithful to that promise, and you want to give them as much information as the story needs to operate. You don’t want to lie to them. You can obscure facts and play with smoke and mirrors, occasionally, as long as the truth is under your words. But everybody should leave a story satisfied in some way: either they know what’s going to happen to the characters, or the ending befit the writing, or it made them think in the way it was supposed to. You can leave your audience wanting more, but don’t do it because you ended abruptly. Leave ’em wanting more because you’re an awesome writer, not because you’re a dishonest one.
Of course, who the hell knows if I even know what I’m talking about? Cockroaches ate three whole sections of Fates.
mxpw’s second note: in other words, don’t be Chris Fedak.