Waiving Chekhov’s Gun Around

We get caught up in NaNoWriMo.

As I wrote my critiques for today the same theme kept coming up: Why is this here? Seemingly important details which call attention to themselves and go no where popped up all over.

All I could think is that some of this may be a NaNoWriMo by-product.

Before I go further I feel that I should define what I’m talking about. This is Chekhov’s Gun:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. – Anton Chekhov

When we talk about what’s needed in a story, this is the principle that we are referring to. Seven paragraphs about the army sneaking in to kill a princess only to fail better have relevance in the story. Anything in a story must have relevance to the characters and the plot. Too much flavor and scenery, the reader begins to wander, scanning the pages looking for meat to chew on.

As with everything, there is a balance.

You have to have that flavor though. Description is key and being able to see a scene is one of the enjoyable parts of reading. This is where a writer really has to work at it though. Get that flavor in, make it relevant and not bore the reader.

It’s not easy.

Being a geek makes this extra hard. You know something cool and have the great urge to regurgitate it to the masses. Geeks like to share all their knowledge, to everyone. As writers though, we have to reign that in. Sure, you may be an expert in on heat death, and your main character may be physicist but unless the murder she’s investigating has something to do with all the stars disappearing then frankly we don’t give two damns.

Oh sure, you can use it to show how it has isolated your main character because of her strange theory causing her to troll the beat section of her local newspaper’s website for something to do that isn’t work. Sure. Perhaps it gives some insight into how her mind works.

But if you give us a sixteen page info dump on the temperature of the universe, then go on to have her solve a bully-style murder, you’ve screwed up.

This takes us back to another fiction writing blurb. Fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense. It has to have a logical progression of connected facts. This is what makes it satisfying. In real life we have Bob bring a macaw into Chipotle, it gets out, does disgusting things under the sneeze guard, makes the news and makes you think twice about going to back to Chipotle. In fiction, Bob was creating a distraction while Jenny broke into the safe in the back. There is always more to the story than “it just happened”.

Conversely, we don’t need know everything that happened. Let me circle back to NaNoWriMo. If you participated you know the drill. Pad, pad pad. Get those words in. This is how we end up with long diatribes about sandwiches, each button carefully detailed while the character gets dressed, long lists of actors in the movie the character just watched. Later, if you plan to do more with your writing, all that shit has to come out.

Your MC may have to get from A to B but unless we need to know what happened during the trip you don’t need to extrapolate. What’s important here? The trip or the destination?

A lot of beginning writers make this mistake but so do established authors. Ed got up. Ed make breakfast. Ed ate breakfast. Ed walked outside. Ed got in the car. Ed started the car. Ed backed up. Ed drove down the street into a blue oblivion monster!!!

Perhaps we should start with the oblivion monster.

Zelazny, in Nine Princes in Amber, details Corwin’s journey to Amber extensively. However this is no ordinary journey. He’s crossing worlds while his brother is slowly trying to pull the pieces of the real world out of shadow. During the journey they have to dodge the machinations of their other brothers who are out to kill them. The journey is part of the story.

Griffin, in Black Like Me, gives us a shower scene to end all shower scenes. He explores his newly dyed body. By the end of page one you get the point, by the end of page two you start flipping through hoping he gets out of the damn shower soon.

Had Random and Corwin just driven to Amber, we wouldn’t need all those pages of journey. Had Griffin woke up to find himself dyed a different color without his knowledge we may have appreciated his wonder and fear as he tries to wash it off.

We, as people, know a lot of cool things. Unfortunately they don’t all go into the story. They can’t. Work on the elements that are core to your characters and your plot. As writers we like painting the worlds we are telling the reader about but that can’t all go into the story either.

Later, when you are revising your story take time to decide if something is needed. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do your characters react to it?
  • Does this give the reader an understanding of what is about to happen?
  • Does this item get used later in the story?
  • Does this do anything besides buffer my word count?

In the end if you find yourself short, you can branch out in subplots. Subplots are items which are interesting, still affect the main plot line and are interesting to read. Just make sure that damn gun goes off.

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