Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#208) -- Chekhov's Gun

What are your thoughts about Chekhov's rule of "the gun"?
(Today's question courtesy of the talented and lovely Amber Love)

Nope. Wrong guy.
For those not familiar with this classic writing "rule," here's the official word from Anton Chekhov himself so many years ago:
"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.’

In other words, don't surprise the reader with something important you haven't already set the stage for by revealing it previously. Equally, don't throw an important "prop" around your work without planning to use it at some point later.

I'm a big fan of the rule of Chekhov's gun, but with certain caveats.

Yep, the "ashtray" guy.
First, I prefer the the gun (or whatever "prop" it is) be brought up subtly, almost a literary afterthought rather than a blatant "Oh, look, there's a gun over on the mantle!" Second, I don't think it's necessary in all situations, such as Batman's utility belt, for example. Once you've established that Bats has all kind of things prepared in his belt, then you don't need to list them in order for him to use them later. However, that being said, (and my third caveat) if Bats is going to take out Killer Croc with a harpoon that happens to be in the corner, then by all means, make sure the harpoon gets mentioned in one of the earlier acts. Don't save it until just that moment with a sort of "Oh, good thing I suddenly notice a harpoon in the corner -- Lucky me!" kind of flourish. That's just lazy writing.