Chekhov’s Gun

Well, by the time I post this, it will be the 24th.  And you know what that means!  (Hint: I’m not referring to Christmas)

That’s right!  It’s my birthday!  I’ve turned twenty-one!  Yaaay!  Happy birthday to me!

I will say merry Christmas, too.  And happy Chanukah to my fellow Jews!  But this post is not about the holidays, or my really inconveniently timed birthday.  No, I’ve actually got more literary things to say, and as you may have gleaned from the title of this post, it is about Chekhov’s gun.

Anton Chekhov wrote lots of stuff like short stories and plays and things.  If you haven’t heard of him, you should probably look him up.  He’s relevant to this post because of this thing he once said about writing plays.  Quoth the Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don’t put it there.”  I remember a different variation, which I guess he never said, but I like to tell it like this: If you put a shotgun on the mantle in the first act, it better have gone off by Act III.  I don’t know where I got the shotgun from if he was talking about a pistol.  I guess it just sounds more purposeful or something.

Anyway, this quote pertains to more than just plays.  It can apply to movies and books, too.  Since we’re more interested in the latter, I’m going to focus on that one.  This concept is all about the world you create.  The thing about writing books, movies, and plays is that, unlike in real life, you get to choose each and every person, place, and thing that shows up in the story.  So, by that logic, if you’re going to choose to put it there, it has to have a purpose.  Otherwise why would you put it there in the first place?  It could just as easily have been left out.  That’s the shotgun/pistol/grenade launcher on the mantle.  If you put it there, use it.

Earlier in this blog, I offered a couple literary exercises.  I would like to add this one: Write a story that contains a “Chekhov’s gun,” so to speak.  Put in some seemingly innocuous object towards the beginning that ends up being really important or relevant at the end.  The point is to make its relevance a surprise (though it doesn’t always have to be).  Then have other people read it and ask them if they predicted what that “gun” was going to be used for.  Obviously for this exercise to work, you can’t tell people ahead of time what you’re doing.

The reason I’m talking about this is…no, scratch that.  There are two reasons I’m talking about this.  One: I get so many of my ideas by accident through this Chekhov’s gun method.  I don’t even try to do it.  I just mention something in passing and then realize later that it would fit perfectly into the plot for such and such reason.  And soon after that, I realize that it’s a good thing I thought of a point for that thing, otherwise I would have had to take it out.  And the reason for that is that readers/audiences know, at some base level, all about Chekhov’s gun.  If they see something or hear something get mentioned, they are likely going to expect to see it come up again.  So if it doesn’t ever come back, that might leave the writer open to criticism.  For an example of one of the times this situation has snuck up on me in my writing…I once had two characters talk about Character Two’s older brother having a job interview.  It was really just to make them seem more human by having them converse about everyday things, but later the job interview became a plot point.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.  Now for an example of the failure to bring something back.  Unfortunately, this means I have to admit to seeing Real Steel.  You know…Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots the Movie?  With Hugh Jackman?  Yeah, I was bored that day.  Anyway, (no spoilers here, not that you care) the kid finds a robot and at some point realizes that the robot “understands” him.  As in it’s sentient.  And that just…doesn’t go anywhere.  I kept waiting for it to be relevant somehow and it never really came back.  The robot was just a robot…that punched other robots.  So that was bad.  Not that the movie was very good to begin with, but still.

The second reason I brought up Chekhov’s gun is this: I think it works in reverse, too.  In this case it would be, “If at the end of the book your character fires a shotgun, the gun better have been mentioned at least once before.”  I came to this conclusion a few days ago when I was writing Grotesque.  I’m almost at the end of it now, and I realized I was missing some key element that would tie everything together.  But it was a really little thing, not something I cared very much about.  I just needed an ingredient.  Literally.  I needed an ingredient for a magical potion.  And I came up with some leaves and decided to bring them up and be like “Look!  These are the leaves! The ones that we had but now he has them and we need them back and oh God he can’t be allowed to use them because that would spell disaster for us!”  (You get extra brownie points if you were able to follow that)  But then I realized I was doing a lot of exposition to explain these leaves and it was so close to the end of the book that it didn’t feel right.  It felt like I was throwing them in at the last second, and they started to get more significant than I’d originally intended them to be.  Which meant that I had to go back through the book and mention them earlier, do the exposition earlier, so that my readers wouldn’t feel like I just threw this thing at them out of nowhere.  As in, “This exists now!  I am the author and I say it exists so it does!  Just go with it, man.”  And that’s how I came to understand the reverse of Chekhov’s Gun.  This post has gone on way too long and there haven’t even been any cartoons to break up the wordiness.  I am sorry for that.  I feel like I want to talk more about this, but I’ll save it for another post.  Until then, enjoy your holidays!  And to anyone else out there who shares my Christmas Eve Birthday, Happy Birthday to you!

Word of the Day: Chekhovian (adj) – of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Anton Chekhov or his writings, especially as they are evocative of a mood of introspection and frustration.

P.S. I just realized that the leaves thing is doubly relevant to this post.  Yes, it was the reverse of Chekhov’s gun, but there was also this point earlier in the story when I had someone mention that they were going to try to find some edible plants, and then he never found any or brought up his search or anything.  Which is an example of mentioning something and then failing to bring it up again.  So then I decided to fix that problem by going back and adding the super special leaves in to that scene, thus killing two birds with one stone, and it worked out perfectly which is so amazing because I never even predicted it would happen that way.  I mean, I didn’t even know those leaves existed until long after I’d written that scene.  It’s cool how writing works, huh?  Ok, good-bye for real this time.

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