Chekhov’s gun

As I noted a few posts back, Chekhov’s gun is the rule supposedly coined by the Russian playwright taht if you put a gun on stage in the first act, it should be fired before the end of the show.
This is something slightly from the idea that the core of your opening should pay off at the finish: If you start with a character problem, you need to resolve it (whether by success or failure); if you kick off with a mystery, you need to answer it (more discussion of that here). Chekhov’s gun is about all the other elements that you may introduce: Supporting characters, secondary puzzles, subplots, set pieces. If you introduce them, don’t forget them.
Case in point, the movie Blood Simple shows Dan Hedaya constantly accompanied by his dog; Hedaya’s romantic rival’s dog gets a lot of screen time too. About halfway through the movie, they’re no longer seen and never even mentioned. Not a fatal flaw in an excellent film, but it is kind of odd.
The more you emphasize something, the more payoff it needs: In my last completed novel, Questionable Minds, I had a subplot involving a telepathic blackmailer that Scotland Yard is attempting to catch while hunting Jack the Ripper. I didn’t want it to look as if my cast immediately realized the plot of the book; instead, I wanted them tackling other cases until the threat of the Ripper became paramount.
My trusty beta reader Dori told me, however, that I’d spent too much time on the subplot, to the point readers would assume it ties in with the main arc, rather than wrapping up on the side. So I finished it several chapters early, and I think that was the right move.
On the other hand, I have some sympathy for an article I read many years ago which argued that writing by a rule that everything you introduce has to be “used” in some way. Life isn’t like that: It has dead ends, aimless side paths and a good story should mirror some of that.
Of course, fiction isn’t like life, but the author has a point. I’m sometimes annoyed by stories in which every detail dovetails together, just like the clues in a 1920s mystery. Or where everything the protagonist (or other characters do) somehow reflects or illuminates his character; in real life we do a lot of things and have a lot of tastes don’t show anything about our character. We’re sloppy.
I think the kind of story where you have the most freedom in not firing Chekhov’s gun are setting-based stories (discussed at my links above), stories that aren’t so much about plots or events as about a world, or a part of the world. For example, slice-of-life stories, which present a typical day in the life of whoever (small town John Doe, Martian artist J’Onn D’oe, medieval peasant John of Doe, etc.). We know we’re only getting one day (or afternoon, or hour) of someone’s story, so it’s no surprise if the gun isn’t fired.
War stories that are about war itself are the same way. Films where the focus isn’t on one character or one mission, but life in wartime: Individual character arcs may wrap up, some people die randomly, but other stories go on, without finishing. Ditto legal or police stories that are about the life of a cop or life at a law firm (think L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues). These stories aren’t about a plot or a story arc (though they still have them) so they don’t have to pay off in quite the same way a plot-centered tale does.
Sometimes you don’t have to fire Chekhov’s gun.

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One response to “Chekhov’s gun

  1. Pingback: Chekhov’s Science: Jack Kirby’s Omac (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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