Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

First, fair warning, I’m Anton Chekov’s bitch.

In my opinion, few writers have provided good advice as consistently as Anotn Chekhov. He primarily wrote plays and short stories, but I’m not sure anyone has explained the key elements of fiction writing as well. He seems to have tapped into a blend of science and art that afforded him the humility of an artist and a scientist’s (or professional athlete’s) understanding of the process that created the art. He was not a “I just sit down and fluffy butterflies come out of my ass” writer. He was a “I have worked hard to understand this process, and this is what I have learned” writer. Which is a boon for me, because I don’t tend to have fluffy butterflies coming out of my ass. Even if I did, I would still want to know how the hell they got there.

By far, Chekhov’s most famous writing advice relates to the famous Chekhov’s gun. Advice he appears to have given in many forms and with different phrasing, sometimes referring to acts of a play, other times to chapters of a book, and still others to placement in a story. It isn’t apocryphal – Chekhov said it – but he said it many times in many ways. To novelists, it’s best put:

“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.”

The end.

Seriously, that is where a blog post on Chekhov’s gun should end. I mean, he’s right. We should be shoehorning 150,000 words of STORY into 100,000 words. 500 words about room décor or intricate descriptions of clothing should get axed on the first edit if they don’t move the STORY forward. It’s a simple concept, it’s true, and I sure as fuck can’t say it better than he did, so the “what a Chekhov’s gun is” part of this post has now concluded.

Related Concepts

There are a few ways to play with Chekhov’s gun beyond, “don’t spend two pages describing your protag’s car unless there’s going to be a car chase or he’ll be buried alive in it later.”

1)    Turning off the turd machine

As indicated in my last post, there is a beautiful interplay between stashing Chekhov’s guns and avoiding deus ex machina (a/k/a turd machines). Deus ex endings are those with a combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) an improbable, intervening force. By telling us when not to hang a rifle on the wall, Mr. Chekhov impliedly tells us when one should be there. Put another way, Chekhov’s guns can change crappy “I didn’t see that coming” endings into riveting, reader doing a face/palm, “I should have seen that coming” endings.

In fact, when people disagree about whether an ending was really a deus ex, it boils down to whether the author did a good enough job stashing Chekhov’s guns earlier in the book. In a discussion over at QueryTracker about my deus ex post, one of my friends from that board said she’d never considered the end of Lord of the Flies deus ex, because using a signal fire to attract ships was discussed significantly in the beginning of the book. Because of that, a ship being attracted by the fire the wild boys set was, at least somewhat, foreshadowed. Similarly, another pointed out that Tolkien mentioned the eagles throughout, and they had and helped Gandalf escape Saruman’s tower, so that might not be a deus ex. To me, that’s just serial use of a deus ex device, which does not make it less deus exey, but the response still highlights the interplay between DoucheyZeus and Chekhov. To the extent a reasonable argument can be made that either is not a deus ex, it is because of a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter One.

I’m not saying this would, necessarily, make either book better, but what if that gun were more obviously hanging there? If three paragraphs were added to Lord of the Flies from the bridge of a ship patrolling the area near the island, the appearance of the naval officer would suddenly be much less deus exey. If the little barefoot dudes in Lord of the Rings had a conversation with the Dumbledor looking dude about how the Eagles would not fly near Mordor while the ring still existed, their appearance right after it was destroyed would, in a sentence, make more sense. Although there is plenty of room to argue that those resolutions are not better, they still show how, with a few sentences, Mr. Chekhov can arm us against Deus exey endings.

2)    Chekov’s Joke

Not surprisingly, since I like to write humor, one of my favorite uses for Chekov’s guns are Chekov’s jokes. If you think about it, every joke you know starts with a Chekov’s gun – or three. “A lawyer, a priest, and a stripper are on an airplane…” The punch line is going to have something to do with how their respective professions relate to not having enough parachutes. Probably something about strippers not screwing people or teasing them with promises of things that aren’t really going to happen. Three people, three guns. The first sentence of nearly every joke ever told is, effectively, “So there’s this gun hanging on the wall…”

Writing literary humor allows a lot of time between the setup and punch line, which is a great tool to play with. For example, the second sentence of the novel I’m querying, is: “Feeling like he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried to look casual, pretending to read the various magazines lying around McClintock Publishing’s lobby.” 253 pages later, the person Nick was there to meet – who has become his employer and his friend in the intervening 80,000 words – notices that Nick doesn’t “even resemble the awkward young writer he’d watched nervously pretend to read magazines in his lobby a few months before.” Not hilarious, by any means, but hopefully amusing. More to the point, it’s a callback in Act 3 that, if I did my job well, flashes the reader’s mind through the rollercoaster the two men have been riding since that meeting. At a time when the cars seem to be coming off the tracks.

I should probably provide a more well known example, since this blog post is already more well known than my manuscript. There is a doozey in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The first book opens by talking about a woman who realizes how much better everything would be if Earth were just destroyed. In a very Monte Pythonesque move, Adams then informs us “This is not her story.”

And it’s not.

That story doesn’t come up again for the rest of the book. Or the next one. Or number three. Then, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams opens exactly the same way, I think word-for-word, up to the point he informs us, “This is her story.”

I think Adams’ execution on that one is brilliant. The first part of the first book is amusing by itself. A bit of Brit humor, not at all unlike Monte Python’s, “And now for something completely different.” It stands on its own as amusing. Which, if you are going to wait five years for the punch line, it has to.

With the punch line, it moves from amusing to genius. A pretty banal opening at best (seriously, try querying “This is her story” and see how it works out) is, in truth, a massive, and massively delayed, payoff on a five year old setup line.

The fact that it could stand on its own as an amusing line is also key to intentionally ignoring Mr. Chekov’s advice when we look at:

3.       One Possible Exception: the red herring.

Back to being Mr. I Hate Absolutes. There are limits to even this (almost) completely true advice from Mr. Chekov. While I am not a fan of including things with no relevance to the story, sometimes things need to be nuanced in order to keep the story from being blatantly predictable and boring to the reader. The most obvious example is a mystery. If the only gun anyone has in Chapter One is the murder weapon, a glue-sniffing kindergartener will probably be able to solve the mystery. A grownup will be bored. Or get drunk and spend a night badmouthing you with a one-star review on GoodReads. I’m not just talking about genre mysteries here, either. All novels need to have some form of mystery to them – if the reader doesn’t wonder what’s going to happen, she’ll never pick the book back up.

Although I’m not talking about genre mysteries, they provide the easiest examples. And those examples show that – even when his advice needs qualification – Chekhov is still basically right. Bad red herrings in mysteries are just plot devices shoved into the narrative so there are other possible suspects. The difference between a good red herring and a contrivance (yes, just different turds from the same machine) is that a skilled writer can work in clues and suspects who muddy the “who done it” waters while at the same time also adding something to the STORY.

For example, all of the victims in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None were also suspects. But the things that made them suspects were also the reason each one was a victim. So each red herring was also part of the plot, apart from merely being there to divert attention from who the killer really was. Much like Adams’ mildly amusing joke was justified in itself, even if it later proved to be the setup for a much bigger joke, Christie’s suspects support the story in their own right, in addition to being red herrings on the “who done it” end of things.

But I digress

(which is probably what I should have named this blog, with an F-bomb thrown in for good measure)

Chekhov’s advice was less about foreshadowing and avoiding deus ex than about avoiding unnecessary detail and description. In practice, though, it pays huge dividends in those areas as well. Making sure any guns in Chapter One are fired before the end of the book, and making sure any guns being fired in the climax aren’t being mentioned for the first time when our hero draws them, are unavoidably linked by good storytelling.

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5 thoughts on “Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

  1. leandrajwallace on said:

    So that’s where the gun phrase came from! I’d heard it, but didn’t know the origins. Also, But I Digress, would make a rockin’ blog title. Just sayin’.

  2. Thanks for popping in! It’s funny how these terms get thrown around — one of my daughters corrected me when I correctly pronounced deus ex machina, because her English teacher pronounced it doos 🙂

    I then bored the crap out of her with a Greek history lesson.

  3. Nadja on said:

    Gawd, you’re fun to read. I love Douglas Adams. Gaiman’s similarity is what got me hooked on him. And the way I write is to aim for 150,000 words and then pull out the knife and cut great, big, bloody chunks out of it until it is thoroughly streamlined. It beats the hell out of trying to stretch a novella into something longer with oodles of fluff.

  4. I was just talking to someone about that. He takes the opposite approach (adds to his first draft to get up to genre-specific totals). I can’t even imagine it. I didn’t pick those numbers at random, either. That’s exactly what I do — first draft is roughly 150 with a goal of going down to 100K. It’s amazing how much better writing is when you force yourself to kill 1/3 of it.

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