Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Chekhov’s Gun

Last Tuesday, as I was preparing the revised version of Deception Island’s Chapter 4, I came upon the sudden and unexpected realization that I had made a mistake in my narrative and hadn’t noticed it before (through six re-writes, mind you).

I had forgotten about Chekhov’s Gun.

Chekhov’s Gun is one of the primary rules of drama, supposedly first enumerated by the Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov. The rule goes something like this: “If you show a rifle hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of the story, someone had better shoot it by the story’s end.”

In other words, there should be nothing in the narrative that doesn’t have a concrete reason for being there. Everything must have a purpose. Everything. There is no room for fluff. If you describe the facade of a character’s house as constructed of brick rather than wood, you’d better have a good reason for it. Will the bricks collapse of someone later in the story? Stop a bullet? Or does it just show how arrogant the wealthy character is? Otherwise, why specify brick?

Every specific detail needs to have a discrete and identifiable purpose. And the fact that you’ve created a truly wonderful description of the brick facade is not enough.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned the literary term verisimilitude (using specific and concrete details to create the illusion of reality). To make verisimilitude work, you must include as many concrete details as possible. The more, the better. This is still valid, but with the Chekhov’s Gun caveat. That caveat is that each of those details you’ve created to achieve verisimilitude, must also serve another significant function in the story, such as plot, characterization, or mood.

An example. Your character is a young man waiting for his date to finish getting ready. He wanders over her book shelf and pulls out a well-worn copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now the fact that she owned a copy of the novel says a lot about her character, her intellect and fortitude. His reaction to the novel also says a lot about him. Perhaps he’s a twenty-four hour a day sports junkie. He has no idea what the novel is or signifies.

Now, if you continue the evening and the two get along famously. They both enjoy the movie they see and the meal they eat. They even like the same baseball team. By the end of the evening, they are on the point of falling in love.

So what was the point of the mail character finding the copy of Ulysses? It had no effect whatsoever on the plot of the story. True, it did show something about the character of the woman, but it wasn’t germane to how their date went. There was no cultural or intellectual conflict. Chekhov’s gun says leave the Ulysses reference out. You might use general genres instead, or just skip the book reference at all. Have him find some sports memorabilia instead.

So, what was my mistake in Deception Island? I mention, first in Chapter 4, but then several times later, the pickup truck of my protagonist’s father. He is suspicious his father’s death was not an accident and inconsistencies surrounding the truck reinforce his doubts. The problem is that, other than those couple of chapters (I think it is mentioned three times in the first half of the novel) the pickup is never again mentioned. I showed the reader a rifle, but then never fired it. I disregarded Chekhov’s Gun.

Now I need to break out the manuscript again and work on fixing the error and any others I may have overlooked before. (I can already think of a couple of instances where I may have ignored Chekhov’s Gun). So I will re-write Deception Island (again) and this time I will post a sticky note with “Chekhov’s Gun” written on it at eye level on my monitor.

Just as a reminder.


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