Hello Storytellers. Diana here with playwright and author Anton Chekhov to explore the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. I’d love to hear your thoughts at the end. Let’s get started…
Imagine you’re watching a movie. The good guy and the bad guy are just about to face off in the tool shed. As the camera shifts to the bad guy, you get a glimpse of a pointy meat hook hanging on a chain. Just a glance. But it’s enough to know that someone’s going to get hooked before the fight is over.
This is one example of “Chekhov’s Gun,” though Chekhov was referring to a gun on the mantel instead of a hook in the tool shed.
At the beginning of the year, Beem talked about sprinkling a story with clues for the Big Reveal (Here). This post is a bit of a spin off – sprinkling clues that keep the story coherent and the pace zippy.
Chekhov believed that every detail in a story must be necessary, and everything else must be scrapped. It came from the idea that if a gun is placed on the mantel, it must at some point be used or it’s making a false promise to the reader.
Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, valued inconsequential details and mocked Chekhov’s bare-bones style. He’s not the only one. Other writers have suggested that too much emphasis on “everything must be there for a purpose” can make a story predictable and colorless.
I’m in the middle.
Inconsequential details can serve a story by bringing characters or setting to life, by adding authenticity, and by offering interesting action beats for dialog. The stylish silk suit may not play a role in the plot, but it says something about the woman who wears it. So does the smudge of chocolate ice cream on her lapel.
At the same time, we don’t need a page’s worth of details about a character’s obsession with bicycles if they’re irrelevant to the plot. If Aunt Bertha’s ceramic unicorn collection isn’t going to come up later in the story, avoid spending four paragraphs describing it. The danger, particularly of needless passages of description or backstory, is they might venture into tangents and kill your pace.
With Chekhov in mind, we should weigh the detail’s contribution and adjust the amount of text accordingly. Make Bertha’s unicorn collection contribute to the narrative on some level, or leave it out. That’s what Anton would advise, anyway.
I think there’s a second lesson from Chekhov’s Gun when it comes to writing—Forecasting.
Let’s say you’re halfway through a zombie-thriller. The writer has his protagonist, a business executive named Larry, leaving a meeting about a corporate merger. He’s an ordinary guy, worried about work, his kids, his job, and the growing danger of zombies. He’s wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a briefcase as he hurries for his car.
Then, a zombie jumps out of an alley. Larry pulls a sword from his trench coat and slays the zombie. Wait, what? What sword? The writer never mentioned a sword. When did Larry get a sword? And where’d the trench coat come from? He’s wearing a rumpled suit.
Some forecasting for this big moment would have been helpful for the reader. Larry was just coming from sword-fighting class. Yes, this may sound ridiculous, but at least it explains the sudden appearance of a sword! Perhaps he hooked it on his belt before the meeting and covered it with his trench coat—the coat we know he was wearing because the writer showed him putting it on.
Well, you ask, what if the sword was meant to surprise the reader? Surprises can be great when well planned! Remember the Indiana Jones scene where he’s facing an expert swordsman. The action forecasted a swordfight, but Indy takes out his gun and shoots the guy! It was a great gimmick because it was so unexpected. And we were set up for it. We knew Indy carried a gun, right?
Here’s another example of a need for forecasting. Two teenage plane crash survivors have been trekking through the mountains for days. They’re in tough shape. Stomachs are growling. As far as we know, they have no supplies, no food, nothing for warmth. The writer has written a grim scene. They’re headed toward death. They sit on a rock, and Bob asks Jennifer to pull her gun from her backpack so he can hunt.
Wait, what? I didn’t know they had backpacks. And Jennifer has a gun? Perhaps the writer needed the teens to have a gun so they can scare off the grizzly bear that’s coming on the next page, but she forgot to plan for it… thus the sudden appearance of backpacks and weaponry.
Now, these are extreme examples, of course. But forecasting does get missed, and it pops the reader out of the story when things seem to appear out of nowhere.
I see it sometimes in fantasy where a character suddenly has a new power in order to solve a plot problem. But it’s not limited to the speculative genres by any means. If you’re character is facing a crisis and needs a way out of it, be careful of having just the right “backpack of solutions” appear on the trail, in the closet, or in the tool shed. Set it up ahead of time. If Jennifer has a gun in her backpack, the writer might show her finding it after the plane crash and slipping it into her gear.
And it can be subtle. If Mary’s going to lose her favorite necklace in the subway, have her put it on in the morning. If Ralph’s toupee is going to fly from his head, show us the windy day. If the car is going to conk out, have the character struggle to start it that morning. If Matt is going to shoot lightning from his fingers, maybe he’s had a problem with static electricity!
Back to Chekhov’s point on extraneous details. Not everything needs to be forecasted. Use the principle of Chekhov’s Gun to weigh the inconsequential from the necessary, and forecast the necessary by putting the gun on the mantel. Then shoot.