Thursday, September 8, 2011

Anton Chekhov's "The Duel"

If someone was just starting out as a writer and was looking for an example of a well-structured and clearly-formed novel, one that was easily analyzed and short enough to remember all of the important elements at once, I would recommend Anton Chekhov's "The Duel." It's actually a novella instead of a novel, but it's got all the pieces of long-form fiction you need to see as a beginning writer:

There is a complete story arc with rising action, surprising complications and a surprising resolution.

There is a large cast of characters, most of whom add contrast and have some kind of emotional stake in the primary conflict.

There is a clear three-act structure, if you're into that sort of thing. The story falls naturally into beginning/middle/end segments.

There are a variety of points of view.

There is dramatic action, emotional revelation, comedy and beautiful language.

I don't think that reading/writing short stories is a very good way to prepare a writer for the task of the novel, though most of us begin by trying to write short stories. So I've been keeping an eye open for short novels that would be good, clear examples of structure and craft. The problem is that most novels are too large and complex to be really easily understood at the level of mechanics and craft to be useful as a learning aid to beginners. "The Duel" is short enough to read in one day but long enough that the author had to do real work to sustain the reader's interest, to create enough complexity within the story to justify the length. All of the basic elements one could want in long-form fiction using a traditional structure are on view in Chekhov's novella.*

Possibly, when I was writing my first novel long ago, reading "The Duel" wouldn't have enlightened me about how a book is written because maybe without the experience of having struggled against a novel, one can't actually recognize the constituent parts of one. I don't know. But if I were going to teach an introductory course on writing a novel, "The Duel" would be the first required reading I'd give to the class.

I briefly considered Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to be a useful sort of "beginner's novel" in terms of structure and evident craft, but that novella has essentially just one character so it might be a bit too simple-minded an exemplar. Though the three-act structure is really obvious in it.

*This is not to say that "The Duel" is a 'simple' or 'basic' story. But the structure is simple enough to grasp, and open enough to adapt to other works. Which is the whole point of using examples, right?


  1. The Great Gatsby would also be a good one. Catcher in the Rye would not. Banana Yashimoto's Kitchen is a novella but it's writ so sideways that it might confuse a novice.

    I've been trying to think of SF/F novellas that readily display all the basic elements of good fiction that can be applied to a full-length novel, but it's been a long time since I read any SF/F. Who Goes There? has a sturdy 3-act plot and a lot of characters and some interesting setting, being set in Antarctica and all. I read a good fantasy novella called Cinders a while back that could act as a primer on long-form writing.

  2. A fine adventure story in novella form is The Man Who Would Be King. The Awakening is a good character exploration. Either of those books would be good to study for a beginner.

  3. Tolstoy has some excellent novellas too! The Death of Ivan Ilyich is presented in a really straight forward way, from what I remember. Hadji Murad is pretty cool and more complex.

    Tolstoy, Tolstoy, Tolstoy

    I want to read The Duel, though.

  4. It's interesting where Chekhov puts the climax in "The Duel."

    Tolstoy, yeah! I thought about Ivan Ilytch, but it's been ages since I read it. I've never read Hadji Murad. But I just finished reading Vol 2 of the Complete Chekhov and I need something different before I pick up Vol 3, so maybe Tolstoy next?

  5. Maybe someone who's not Russian?

    Have you read any Gunter Grass? Can and Mouse? That has one of my favorite characters in it.

  6. I've read something like 6 or 8 Gunter Grass novels. I liked "Cat and Mouse" and "The Flounder" and "Dog Years" all more than I liked "The Tin Drum" but I think my favorite was "Local Anesthetic," which is a short early novel. I like Grass' use of magical realism in his novels from the 80s and 90s. I haven't touched any of his books since the one about the repatriation cemetary ("Headbirths" maybe?) and "Meeting at Telgte," which I read in 2005 or so.

    Actually, I have Tara Maya's "Conmergence" in my briefcase now, so that's probably my next read. Neither German nor Russian nor other Dead White Guy.

  7. Okay! But what about a book written in the 1800s and now the 2000s...! I mean the 19th and 21st centuries' have indeed different demands!

  8. "the 19th and 21st centuries have indeed different demands"

    No, they don't. They just have different years printed on their calendars. A solid narrative is a solid narrative. The basics of storytelling haven't been rewritten by the latest generation of writers. If Francine Prose and Lydia Davis and Daniyal Mueenuddin and Annie Proulx and Annie Dillard are reading Chekhov in 2011, that's enough of an endorsement for me.

  9. This is one I'd like to read, Scott.

    The Awakening is one I like to suggest because it was one I was given in college and it ended up helping me a lot in the mechanics of story intertwined with character and symbolism.


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