Plot and Motivation: A Room Full of Chekhov

Today’s Plot and Motivation article is about a classic principle of drama: Chehov’s Gun (though it applies to far more than firearms, as we will see).  The best way to put it is to let the codifier of the principle, Anton Chekhov, put it this way:

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.

What this means in broader terms is that you shouldn’t devote time to description or characterization that isn’t important to the plot of the piece.  It seems, like many rules of drama and plot, to be common-sense; why would any writer devote energy and pages to unimportant matters?

The problem is that sometimes what the author thinks is ‘important’ really isn’t, at least not to the plot and characterization of the story.  We are often blind to our own problems and anyone who has attempted to edit their own work will attest to this.  An author may decide that it is vital to the plot, for instance, that extra details need to be added to a character when, at the end of the plot, those details are never used.

Take, for example, an author is writing a story and decides to spend a whole chapter developing and describing the protagonist’s parents and their relationship.  One would figure, by the end of that chapter, that the parents will either be vital to the plot or that the plot (or a major sub-plot) might be the relationship between them itself or changes to that relationship.  And yet, the author then plows into a space travel yarn with the protagonist leaving the planet and never again are the parents or that relationship figured into the equation.

Why was it even included, yet alone taking up a whole chapter?  Perhaps the author had originally intended to reference it again, but the plot moved away from it.  Perhaps he/she thought there was some elemental characterization that needed to be shown but, in that case, would it have been better to find another way to do it using story elements that would be more important to the novel?  The point remains that once you introduce a plot element, especially if you devote real page space to it, you need to find a way to use it.

In a way, the principle of Chekhov’s Gun is closely tied with foreshadowing, something we talked about earlier.  They both serve similar purposes, so most principles using one should be applied to the other.  Both are vital tools and important rules to remember to use in your writing.

How many Chekhov’s Guns do you use in your stories?  Do you find there are exceptions to the dramatic rule?  If so, what are they and how did they work out for you?  Talk about it in the comments below.

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2 comments

  1. When something like this would come up, I would ask the Muse on duty, “Why do I have to write that?” I usually got some cockamamie grunt out of her, like, “Just do what you’re told.” Finally I got fed up, and asked, “Are these some sort of red herrings?”

    There just happened to be two of them here that day, Melpomene and Clio. Melpomene got all huffy: “I’ll have you know, I don’t work that way -” but Clio interrupted with, “Oh, go ahead and tell her. She might as well know now, as later.”

    Melpomene pouted for a minute, and then she said, “Okay. They’re there, because there was another tragedy in that house, that you’re gonna to have to write about.” I said, “Whaddaya mean? This book’s got more than a hundred thousand words, already.”

    Clio said, “Mel’s right. They have to be there, because they tie this novel to the book that comes before and the book that comes after.” When I goggled at her, she said, “You’re writing a family saga, Dear, not a stand-alone.” That was news to me!

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