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.
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.