Editing Tips From Kurt Vonnegut

Recently I came across a blog article entitled “Writing Tips from Kurt Vonnegut” which was posted on Melody Godfred’s blog “Write in Color”. It was short and sweet and to the point, listing 8 great tips. Two of those tips really resonated with me because at the time I read them, I was entrenched in editing my documentary and I was struggling with a couple of story issues.

  • 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.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.

For the most part when I write I’m usually writing with someone in mind. But I realized when I was editing the 11 stories of this documentary, I was getting caught up in trying to tell too many stories for too many people with their needs in mind. And in the process, I wasn’t getting anywhere in telling the central story of the film. After reading these words of wisdom from Vonnegut, the master of storytelling, I stepped back and envisioned myself with a friend, telling the story of my film and it became clear what I needed to do.

One thing I’ve always done when editing video is to create the beginning and the end first and then fill in the middle. So when I read the tip about starting as close to the end as possible, it reinforced the idea that I needed to have a very clear idea on how I was going to end this film. I had already decided that I wanted to contrast the beginning and the ending visuals so I applied this thinking to the story itself.

I get a lot of questions from people about the mechanics of editing video – like how to do certain things in Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere – and I answer the best I can. But I also point out that it’s easy to get caught up in what the software can do and forget about the story that you’re trying to tell. My advice is to read as much as you can about the craft of storytelling. I learned a lot about story structure from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. I learned that every good story has a few key ingredients – irony, conflict, resolution, a hero, change – all basic universal themes. Tutorials on Final Cut aren’t going to help your storytelling skills and without a good story – you might just have some “eye candy” to music.

There is just one more tip from Vonnegut that I’ll leave you with – make sure you check out the other 5 tips.

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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2 Replies to “Editing Tips From Kurt Vonnegut”

  1. Well done!

    Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

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