Chekhov’s gun

Anyone who’s ever come across writing advice has probably found various things referring to 3 or 5 act structure, and something that sounds like a reference to a Star Trek character’s firearms.

This is a curious phenomena that truly boggles me.  Those elements have to do with playwriting and not with narrative, yet they’re rather vocally advocated by fiction writers.  I’ll grant, JMS’s love of Chekhov’s Gun is excusable — he is, after all, a script writer for TV and film.  But why should a novelist care if Chekhov has a gun, a sword, or a herring?

Personally, I don’t think we ought to.

For anyone not familiar with it, I shall enlighten you:  There’re various versions of the quote from various sources, but our good Sir Chekhov essentially says “If there’s a gun in the first act/chapter by the second or third it should be fired, else it shouldn’t be there.”

I can, honestly, understand this for script writing, so long as it’s used sensibly.  Prop department puts a gun, fishing pole, tuna fish, or moose head over a mantle it doesn’t have to be anything but scenery.  The thing is, though, if some importance is placed upon this thing over the mantle (such as a dramatic, momentary zoom of the camera to it) or some scene of minor characters doing something mysterious and secretive with it before scurrying off stage left while the protagonists enter stage right … oh, sure, to do nothing with the gun after this is going to confuse and probably annoy the viewer.  In writing, though we have far more freedom.

The study was quiet, lit only by the fire crackling in the hearth casting dancing shadows over everything.  Jack sat in the well-worn plush chair by the warm fire and looked around the room hardly seeing the thick bearskin rug, or his grandfather’s ancient rifle resting below the large oil painting of the man.  He took a sip of the bourbon and tried to work up the nerve for what he knew he must do.

Sighing heavily he slipped the small vial of deadly poison from his coat pocket and walked over to the cabinet with its beautiful crystal decanters.  He hated to do this to such a fine, well aged cognac, but the man had to be stopped.  He upended the vial into the cognac and placed it back in the cabinet.  Knowing his father’s habits, in a few hours Lord Percival deWinter would be dead, and by his only son’s own hand.

In that, the gun isn’t important.  Its presence is neither foreshadowing, nor pertinent, or is it?  It’s scenery, clearly, nothing more than a prop.  But it sets a tone, sets an expectation.  It tells something of Jack deWinter’s family, his grandfather, apparently, hunted or perhaps was fond of antique weapons.  Given its juxtaposition to a bearskin rug we can safely guess hunting.  Was Grandfather deWinter a good man or evil?  Clearly either his son or his grandson is, depending on why it is that Jack felt such an urgent need to poison his father with no more remorse than the ruination of a fine spirit.

In narrative there is this notion that one must adhere to various rules of structure.  That items should only be referenced which are going to prove critical or useful later, or that are symbolic of something.  That the flow and pacing of the story should fit a specific pattern (3 or 5 act, again or perhaps The Hero’s Journey).  I think not.

Poetry, of course, has structure.  By definition, a poem must — else it isn’t a poem, it’s just words placed on a paper in odd fashion.  Meter, scansion, rhyme and rhythm all or some must be present.  A poem is its structure.  Hence, once upon a time, prose was a wretched thing, only any good for the uneducated masses and not worthy of attention by those more learned and intelligent.  Let the peasants have their prose.

Prose, however, opened doors and those doors were flung wide and unignorable by things such as Don Quixote, or Les Trois Mousquetaires.  Others, too, I’m more than certain, but give me a break — my tastes lean to the ancient Greek and then skip to Lewis Carroll.  A few in between exceptions exist, but emphasis on ‘a few’.  We threw off the bonds of poetry, and could tell any story almost any way that suited us.  And with that came the chance to prove to the naysayers that prose could be intellectual, brilliant, and all that other stuff too.

Of course we’re still confined to the rules of grammar, and some conventions of grammar exist almost exclusively for the purpose of writing narrative, but that’s as it should be — one must still be able to convey one’s ideas to the audience in a meaningful way.  But now we’re free in the telling.

In this freedom we have the following facts:  Our audience is not captive.  Unlike a script we don’t have to hurry.  We can take the time to smell roses, and contemplate bees.  If the reader needs to pee, they can take the book with them or simply put it down.  Our audience can put us down.  We can tell a story that takes 57 hours to enjoy — that’s fine.  The audience may put us down at the end of this chapter and go to sleep and pick us up where she left off.  We may be enjoyed in the park, in the sun, in candlelight, in the bath, in bed, in the car, on a plane or train, we can be enjoyed with a fox, we can be enjoyed in a box (I couldn’t resist, sorry).  We need not make a fuss.

Now, there’s limits.  A reader has his patience.  Either Lawrence Block or Terry Pratchett said (I’m sorry — I can’t recall, and searching for the quote got me sites giving resumé advice) “The purpose of page one is to get you to read page two.”  Pacing is important, but pacing isn’t the alpha and omega of keeping a reader’s attention.  Keeping their interest does too.

John woke at exactly 0700 and stood, stretching.  He padded thirty-two steps to his closet where he pulled out a dark blue navy suit, and a ivory coloured pressed and starched dress shirt.  He decided on a narrow, midnight blue tie …

Pretty dull, awful lot of detail and most of it pretty unimportant in that it isn’t interesting.  Thing is, context is important.  If it’s just that excerpt, then it’s just a bad bit of narrative.  You could trim lots of it out because it’s the kind of not important that bogs things down.  On the other hand, perhaps this is very important as it could be part of something illustrating what a monumentally dull person this is.  In that instant this boggy, mind-numbing bit of narrative could be fairly attention holding.

I also criticise other bits of fiction structure Gospel — act structure and Hero’s Journey, and others I can’t think the names of right now.  I’m not saying a story shouldnt/can’t have these.  It just shouldn’t be the intent.  Hero’s Journey being a grey area — though, I’m sure you could just as easily write a Quest story that accidently follows the Hero’s Journey as doing so on purpose.  If a story, after the fact, plots out to some named structure (and odds are pretty good it will to some degree) that’s all well and good, but why constrain yourself to this from the beginning?

To those who need it or can do it and well, that’s fine too.  We all have to tell our own stories our own ways.  I’m just referring to the plethora of advice that says Must.  As if there is some rule to writing besides the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar — all of which might be violated in a pinch to tell the story better (e.g. Mark Twain’s fondness for writing in vernacular).

My writing advice?  My contribution to this great big mess of How to Tell a Story and What Makes Fiction or whatever?  Write.  Tell your story. That’s all.  Let the rest take care of itself.  It generally will.

If you’re such a rigidly organised person you can’t write without a solid framework to build upon then yes, look into concepts like the act structure or the various other Formulae of Fiction; maybe in the educational journey of writing you’ll start to morph and modify that framework to fit your own needs.  For the rest of us … tell your story, end done full stop.

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