Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Essay: Chekov's Gun

Andre Norton has written about 150 books. Fun fact: if you were to spend a million dollars on each one of her books, you'd still not have spent as much money as Obama's budget calls to be spent in the first nine seconds of fiscal year 2011! (Just a reminder that the games he, Pelosi, and Reid are currently playing are being played with your tax money. What they choose to do with their own cash is up to them, but I'm getting sick of paying for their hair brained schemes.)

But despite the absurd number of books Andre Norton published in her 71 year career, I refuse to read any of them. Nope. Sorry. Tried it once and I won't do it again. (Well, never say never. I'm arguing through hyperbole here. Please don't send me lengthy emails about Voodoo Planet.)

The reason why is very simple. Yes, I understand that I'm probably costing myself some great fiction. I'm probably missing out on some wonderful stories. Unfortunately, once, a long time ago, I tried one of her science fiction books and she dropped the ball so horrifically that I just can't bring myself to risk it again.

I can no longer recall the title. I was around eleven years of age. I can recall that one of the plot points of the book was an ancient alien city in the middle of the jungle. About thirty years previous to the story an archaeologist took a crew in there with a new piece of technology that was supposed to be able to replay historical events on a screen. This would show you why the aliens abandoned this city to the weeds.

Unfortunately, the archaeologist and his crew vanished after sending one terrified shrieking message for help-- similar to the events of the movie Event Horizon, only without the piss poor acting.

This is where things went wrong for me. This type of plot device is called Chekhov's Gun. Anton Chekhov (not to be confused with Pavel Chekov, navigation officer of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701.) was a playwright of the late 19th century and possibly one of the greatest writers of short fiction in world history. In a letter to a friend, A. S. Gruzinsky, (Under a pseudonym), Chekhov simply said: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

Other authors have also restated this:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." From Gurlyand's Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521.

"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." From S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911)

This literary technique goes all the way back (and probably farther) to the Arabian Nights. Scheherazade tells her husband the story of the Three Apples in order to keep him from cutting off her head (Don't those muslims show total reverence for women?). In the story, the apples function as a repetitive designation and foreshadowing technique.

The best way this is done is by the introduction of a seemingly irrelevant prop. I can recall an example in the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. At one point, during a bomb threat, the station DJs decide to broadcast from the transmitter rather than the repeater site in the office. Johnny trips over a tool box on the floor and spends the rest of the episode beating the hell out of it, kicking it around, etc.

After the bomb goes off and wipes out the transmitter (fortunately while they are outside for a smoke break), they find out the next day that the bomb was hidden in a tool box-- which causes Johnny to sprint for the bathroom.

Another example would be the color red in M. Shyamalan 's The 6th Sense. If you watch carefully, any time there is a ghost on screen, the color red is featured somewhere within the frame. The Harry Potter series is also rife with the use of this technique, from characters you find later are defenders placed to protect and watch Harry, to one of the horcruxes itself, casually tossed away as trash when cleaning an old house.

Andre Norton's example is rather extreme: an entire alien city is placed within the novel to serve as a plot point, and you know that whatever else the story will be about, at some point the main character is going to enter that city and find out what happened to the archeological crew.

What actually happens is that the main character, a runaway slave, if memory serves, starts at one end of the magnificent city and walks completely through to the other side without incident.

Um. I think you forgot something, Andy!

I recall being so bitterly disappointed with the resolution of this plot point that I haven't read an Andre Norton novel in twenty-six years as a result.

Perhaps the best possible genre to elucidate the use of Chekov's Gun would be the mystery. It's usually not until the big reveal, when the detective has the suspects gathered in the study, that the insignificant little dust he noticed on the victim's clothing in passing turns out to be chalk dust, leading him to the inescapable conclusion that it couldn't be the teacher who was the murderer, since most classrooms use whiteboards, but most definitely is the sidewalk artist.

Using a Chekov Gun properly is an art form in and of itself. It's very easy to over stress your Gun, making it stand out in the reader's mind. It's also easy to make it so subtle that it never clicks to the reader, so the reveal seems more like a tacked on afterthought than anything else.

Here's my challenge to you: try and find a way to work a Gun into your current work in progress. Properly applied Guns really make the reader sit up and take notice. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, even if they didn't quite solve the riddle themselves. It can be described as a sort of "reverse MacGuffin" in that the apparently insignificant becomes the driving plot device.

Maybe your Gun will be a character who wanders in briefly, and turns out to be the main reason for the story. Maybe it'll be something completely different. Find a way. Make it fit.

I think you will find that it enriches your storyline considerably.

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. Fascinating post, Chris. It brings to mind Sanderson's Mistborn series. I've never seen the technique so perfectly pulled off as it was in those books. Subtle and yet prevalent at the same time, causing the ole hand smack to the forehead and the muttering of "Why didn't I see that?"

    I think one of my dreams as an aspiring author is to pull off something along those lines...

  2. People, do not post spam on my blog. I will delete your stupid ass comment and think of you as a tool, no matter HOW good your "essay writing tips" may be.

  3. Behind on my blog reading and darn it, I missed the tool :/

    Hee Hee, reverse MacGuffin, I like that term. Nothing annoys me more in TV shows and movies than OVER emphasized 'guns'. I'm a visual person though, so they jump out at me more in that format.