Friday, November 27, 2009

Chekhov's Gun

First: Happy belated Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates that holiday (and to those who don't anyway). Mighty Reader and I had turkey, potatoes, yams, stuffing, pies and a lot of hooch. It was swell. I'll spare you any anecdotes and private jokes, and just say I hope you all had a wondrous Thursday, no matter what you did.

Today I'd like to talk about details. Playwright Anton Chekhov famously once said, "If a gun is loaded in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three." What he means by this is that if you make a detail seem significant at the time, then you owe it to your reader to make good on that significance. There should be some sort of payoff for drawing the reader's attention to a detail or an action. This theory of payoff from significance is known as "Chekhov's Gun."

Chekhov's Gun provides a good general rule about writing, one that forces us to pay attention to the level of detail we put into our stories. I'd like you to keep the idea of Chekhov's Gun in mind for a minute while I talk about something else.

When we are writing our first drafts--or when I am, at any rate--I tend to put in all sorts of details about people and places and then cut most of them out in revisions later. Some of the details are odd things that I have no idea why I'm writing them in, but at the time they seem to be the right details. For example, say that you're having two characters talk to each other, and for no reason you can think of, you have one of these characters mention his limp. Why's he have a limp? Who knows; it just works there so you leave it. You might also have another character wearing a foolish hat that nobody can stand but he won't be take off. Or you have a woman who is playing with a ring on the small finger of her right hand. These are little things you've stuck in to round out your characters, but mention maybe only once and then forget about as you finish the first draft. When you go back through to revise, you can't recall why these details are in the story and so you cut them and move on.

What I'd like to suggest is that some of these details, seemingly meaningless, did signify something to you when you were in the white-hot passion of drafting. At some level, they were the right details, and you should consider keeping them. But don't just leave them how they are. Do something with them. Think of these details as potential examples of Chekhov's Gun. Before you cut them out, ask youself what they could possibly mean in the larger context of the story. Do they say something about your characters that can be expanded, that will deepen the reader's connection to the characters?

For example, the guy with the limp. Maybe he limps as a result of some event about which he's ashamed. Whenever he gets to know someone new, they'll inevitably ask about the limp. How honestly he answers them can be a measure of how much he trusts the other person. You could even be clever and have an inverse relationship: the more honestly he answers about his limp, the less he cares for the other person and, maybe, the more likely he is to do them some sort of harm.

The guy with the hat could've gotten the hat from someone special to him that he's trying to reunite with. Or, to be more clever, he refuses to doff his cap to anyone because he sees himself as the equal or even the better of anyone he meets, and at some point he will, dramatically, take off his hat for some character.

The woman with the ring? Maybe it's her mother's wedding ring. Maybe it's a ring someone gave her when she was little. Maybe it's nothing of the sort. Maybe it's a ring she stole and can't remove and her playing with it is a sign of her constant worry that she'll be caught out in her theft.

Not all of the little details you spontaneously throw in will lead to bigger story elements, but some of them probably can. I scatter these things into my first drafts and I know at the time that they'll probaby be cut but I also know that they might develop into pointers to larger ideas in the rest of the story. One possible way to visualize this is that, with the mention of (for example) the walking stick the antagonist carries in Chapter Two, you are lighting a fuse that will lead to some kind of explosion in a later chapter. The explosion needn't be big. And it might not even be a sort of "A leads to B" chain of events. It could just be that your "insignificant" details can be made significant if you ask yourself not just what they mean where you've first written them, but what else they might mean. Sometimes, they mean nothing at all, and that's why you've got your delete key. But sometimes, they can lead you farther and deeper into your characters, and you should follow those leads.


  1. I see this issue everywhere and I am so glad you have mentioned this here!

  2. Scott, I like this. I think this is one of the reasons you know who thought my characters weren't very memorable. I gave them a bunch of quirks in draft one and cut them all out when I rewrote the book altogether. I was lazy and didn't take the time to flesh out those quirks. I think these things can really bring a story and the characters to life.

    With my first book I did this - and followed through with many of the quirks. Some of them even ended up changing the plot a bit.

    I'm happy you had a great holiday!

  3. Excellent examples, good sir. I haven't created works of fiction long enough to use this device, as yet, but it's something I definitely want to keep in mind when I do.

    I guess I'll just bookmark LitLab and come back as necessary...

  4. Nice post with a lot to think about.

    One of my characters is full of peculiar quirks. At first they seem to be there simply to make her quirky, but it goes far beyond that. Those idiosyncrasies have everything to do with who she is and why she has arrived on the scene, so to speak.

  5. Ooo...great reminder! I'll definitely keep that in mind as I'm revising next month, and as I'm drafting as well. The little things really can be so...big. :-)

  6. Sometimes my characters have a tendency to write themselves totally fascinating adventures when they are meeting someone new. Show offs that they are, I later have to decide what to edit out - awh, such a painful experience - and what to incorporate in later writings.

    I had a couple incomplete details in book one that really wasn't significant until book three; but as I've always known the work was a trilogy, I wasn't sure how far in advance to set up a detail.

    So what do you think Scott (or anyone else)? I cut out the detail in book one, only to remember it in book three and write it in, but worried I needed to add that set up in the "series minded reader" long and long ago.

    So, I put it back because, the first novel hasn't sold yet.

    I digress, sorry. I agree an Author needs to be careful of details, and their significance.

    Great post Scott. Thanks.


  7. This is a cool post. I love it when details that I'm not quite certain why I put in the story have significance later on as I write. That is why I don't revise much as I go along. I like to leave all of the possibilities open until the story is finished. Then, I am not in danger of cutting out something that could eventually be very important.


  8. Nice post, Scott, and happy late Thanksgiving. I like thinking about this topic a lot, mostly because it's always a surprise how the smallest of details can really change the whole story. Most of the time, I move in the opposite direction as you do. I tend to write very sparingly in early drafts, so it's only in revisions that these new details come in. That's when I realize I can't just put any details in. I'll add something and then see that it really changes the course of things if I expand on it in any way. Sometimes that's good, sometimes it's bad, but always it is much more work! I gave my Rooster protag a scar on his arm a couple of years ago, and that opened up an entire past experience of how he got that scar, which I eventually tied into his history with his family. I was so excited about that, but it came out of my trying to fire that gun I had originally set up.

  9. I had no idea this had a name. Thanks for informing me. (Maybe I ought to read more Chekhov.)

  10. Great examples. After reading your blog I've already come up with a bunch of new ideas for my novel. Thanks a bunch.


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