Chekhov’s gun control: Lessons in writing, part 3

In discussing writing with some other bloggers, we have recently been mentioning “Chekhov’s gun.” This is a rule cited by Russian author Anton Chekhov that if you include a gun in a story (Chekhov referred to a play), someone ought to think of using it, else it is irrelevant and shouldn’t be there. It might be better to call this Chekhov’s gun control. The idea is that every element of your story should contribute to its theme.

And just as there are those people who oppose gun control, so there are writers who oppose Chekhov’s gun control. I think most novelists fall into that category, whether they like it or not, because it’s rare that every detail contributes to the essence of the novel. A lot of most novels is color, to help establish a setting and mood. It’s hard to be strict with Chekhov’s gun control while writing that type of material.

Writing color in a novel is like firing an assault rifle

Writing color in a novel is like firing an assault rifle

More importantly, I think Chekhov’s gun control is a bad idea for writers while they are writing their first draft. This is especially true for writers with panzer tendencies. Every word you write opens up new possibilities, even if you are the most systematic of plodders. Some of those possibilities will offer new and exciting ideas. Some will allow you to connect elements of your story even more closely in ways you never considered before. And that, as I implied in the previous post, will make it a better story.

I had decided to write The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge as a weekly serial (as you can see from the schedule/table of contents), with only its main elements and connections worked out beforehand. I couldn’t be sure exactly which elements were going to contribute to the story and which were not. So I adopted the practice of writing Dragon Lady three chapters ahead of what I posted on the blog. This was my way of handling Chekhov’s gun control. I would be writing far enough ahead that I could follow out and decide which possibilities in chapter x would be fruitful in chapters x+1 and x+2. At the same time, if interesting ideas cropped up in chapter x+2, I could retrofit them into chapter x before it was ever posted.

With that system in place, I started writing Dragon Lady with absolutely no regard for Chekhov’s gun control. I liberally salted my story with all sorts of people and plot elements, all sorts of possibilities, without knowing for sure if they would contribute to the themes and main plot of the story.

I didn’t worry about violating Chekhov’s gun control for three reasons. First, I knew generally where the story had to go. I wasn’t going to introduce any elements unless I could see some way they could support the main story. Second, I was writing three chapters ahead. This meant I could see how an idea worked out over a few chapters, enough that I could eliminate ideas that quickly sputtered out. And third, I had been so successful in connecting the initial elements in “Troubles” together after I had written them that I was certain I could do the same with any interesting elements in Dragon Lady that got past the two previous censors.

In practice, this sometimes worked out, sometimes not. Amy was one of its successes. She was invented just as an incidental character in chapter 4. I soon decided to assign her a pivotal role in the crisis at the end of chapter 7, and her role in chapters 5 and 6 would be the basis for the more important role she would take on in chapters 19 and 23. Prudence Miller was one of its failures. She played a prominent role in the mob scene in chapter 13. That was supposed to set her up to be a leader of the riot that would occur just before the climax of the book. However, the sequence of events I set running in chapter 17 moved so quickly that I had to discard the riot, and Prudence never appears again.

James, the major-domo, was neither a success nor a failure. He plays a prominent and appropriate role, from chapter 1 all the way to the last chapter. Yet his conflict with Rebecca, which I had earlier used as a major engine to drive the plot, is left unresolved in chapter 19, thanks to Rebecca’s death. Well, real life is like that, too. Not everything gets resolved.

Despite repeatedly violating Chekhov’s gun control while I was writing it, Dragon Lady still reads reasonably smoothly. As I’ve said, that’s because I knew roughly where I was going, and because I tried to stay three chapters ahead. If I wrote material that didn’t seem as if it would lead to anything, there was usually plenty of time to discard it, or at least reduce its presence in the story. The best example of that is the story of what happened to Amy in New York, which Rev. Field describes in chapter 19. Originally, I was going to tell that story in more detail from the point of view of Beth or Amy in a chapter to be inserted between chapters 18 and 19. I tried writing it both ways. The chapter was intended to further demonstrate the relationship between the two women. But their relationship was so far from the main story line by that point, and the main story line was moving so very rapidly, that the planned chapter would have killed the story’s pace. In the end, I shortened it to what you read in chapter 19.

Writing three chapters ahead had two other advantages, which I’ll talk about in the last post in this series.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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10 Responses to Chekhov’s gun control: Lessons in writing, part 3

  1. crimsonprose says:

    Another helpful post for would-be and active writers. But I’ll add to it. In writing Neve, it was mapped out in outline, character notes, as in previous comment to your previous post, 2 stories within it already composed. There oughtn’t to have been any problems. Yet I reached the climax and found something vital was missing: the motivation of one of the characters. Without it there wasn’t the degree of tension. Groan. What to do. Had I been posting, as you do, 3 chapters in hand, I’d have had little leeway. As it was I was able to return to Chapter One and add in one little detail, so small it can easily be overlooked. But from there I developed it through. Small hints, nothing more. Now, come the climax the history is there, but it also comes as a surprise (which is why I’m careful of how I word this.. As I said in reply to a comment you made on FF, we travel by different routes. What works for one may not work for another. So, each writer finds what works best for them. And that is advice often missing in how-to books.

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    You’re going to like tomorrow’s post, CP. As you say, each writer should vary use of the rules to suit the writer’s practices. Tomorrow I go into the one major change I snuck into DSL after it started that made it a better story.

  3. crimsonprose says:

    Oh, now that has whetted my curiosity. And what I was going to say before, but didn’t fit it in, is that I’ve not yet read the other stories (Troubles with . . .); too many blogs I’m following and not enough time. So, at Dragon Lady’s end, I shall return to them.

  4. natechen says:

    Fun fact about Chekov’s gun – there’s some thought that one of the concerns about having guns in plays was that the gun is a potential danger to the actors and the audience if it’s left lying around and loaded. Thus, what Chekov might have been saying was, “don’t put something dangerous on the set unless people are going to use it.” Why the gun had to be loaded is something that’s beyond me… Of course, there are things like the Conservation of Detail to be kept in mind, it’s not good to overload your readers with random details. But in my opinion, on the whole Chekov’s gun is a good rule of thumb but not something that really needs slavish devotion, at least in the novel format.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Reasonable possibility why Chekhov would mention a gun, rather than something else. I just spent some time wandering about the Internet, and was unable to find a context for any of the three commonly cited versions of Chekhov’s rule.

  5. Judy says:

    As a reader, I can’t say I track every element or feel a hole when something mentioned doesn’t get tied up somewhere else in the story. Perhaps the presence of the gun only serves to establish something about the owner or simply decorates the feel of a place. Its use could be flavor and not action but it is still used. Unless an omission is terribly agregious, readers have an uncanny way of mentally filling in the blanks.

    Although, it is funny the things that will hit in an abrupt way. Dragonlady was perfectly smooth for me. But, there was one part where Rebecca was riding the dragon, I think, and was looking at the sunset and observed there was no magic in it!! My first reaction was …what…no magic in the sunset? Of course she was looking for actual magic and not the beauty of a sunset.

    I think the purpose of rules is for the kind of guidance a writer might need to keep a story on course as a matter of discipline but which are broken to fit style or elicit a reaction.

    Chekov was an amazing person..a doctor who had TB as a young man..who supported his family with his writing..and who was ‘dying by inches’ (as a biographer put it) while writing The Cherry Orchard! I did not remember the gun rule.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I agree with you about readers filling in the blanks. Sometimes even the editors will do it: my copy of Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas” points how how a minor characters seems to be in two places in a short span of time, and suggests that either the character took an unrecorded trip . . . or Le Fanu simply forgot about where she was supposed to be! And of course fans of several TV series have labored long and hard to tidy up discrepancies, even when it can’t really be done (e.g., the UNIT episodes dating problem in “Doctor Who”).

      Sorry about Rebecca’s lack of aesthetic appreciation of the sunset just then. Now that you raise the point, I can’t quite figure out whether she would have indeed appreciated it as part of the marvelous experience she was having . . . or whether just being on the dragon’s back had already used up her ability to be amazed. So thanks for bringing up that point.

      The gun rule is said to come from a letter Chekhov wrote and two different memoirs by other people. I just went hunting for all three on the web (see above), and couldn’t find any of them, apart from the actual quotations. If I get the chance, later this week I’ll look into this a bit more. I’ve got one of the world’s largest libraries a 15 minute walk away; if I can’t find any of the three there, I have to wonder.

  6. crimsonprose says:

    I’ve not thought of it before, but wouldn’t a gun over the fireplace be pretty commonplace in said context? It’s not like having a waterbutt on the balcony of 3rd floor apartment in Cairo, where it’s not likely to be of use, except in Ch 20 the villain hides his takings in it (e.g.)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Or a butt of malmsey if you don’t have a prince to execute. 😉

      It probably would be common, but I wouldn’t hang a loaded gun up over a fireplace. Then again, only one version of the quote says the gun is loaded, while two just say it must be fired; one version says it’s a pistol, two say it’s a rifle.

  7. crimsonprose says:

    The audience would only know the gun/rifle/pistol was loaded if in some way attention had been drawn to it. “Oh look, Uncle Boris is loading the rifle”; “Do not touch the pistol, young Alexei, for it is loaded.” That’s not the same as using the gun/rifle/pistol as stage dressing, period veracity, or whatever. Therefore I think in the original the weapon must have been loaded. It makes no sense elsewise. So the rule ought to be expressed as: Do not draw the readers’ attention to an item in Act I, unless you intend to use it in Act III. Unless, of course, it is a red herring.

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