Cleaning Chekhov's Gun

Sun 01 Mar 2015 11:07 AM

I wrote most of this years ago, and I stumbled across the file recently while working on something else. I'm sticking it here, like you do.

There is a rule of thumb about stories which is now just typically referred to as Chekhov's Gun. The Wikipedia article notes that this is like Ockham's razor for writers.

Evidently, Anton Chekhov said similar things to a bunch of different people in 1889. For example, "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." Another commonly quoted version has it, "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 latter formulation was (as near as I can tell) offered from memory decades later, and it seems to me that there's an important difference between these two formulations.

If the dictum is taken to an extreme, any significant fact earlier in a story must have a consequence later. Consider a specific example from the novel Fool Moon: Harry Dresden realizes he is dealing with werewolves of some kind. His research reveals that there are three different kinds. By the end of the novel, all three have made an appearance. There is no allowance that some details might actually be incidental, that there might be more things in the heaven and earth of the story than will make a difference to the plot before it ends.

Call this overwrought version of the dictum Chekhov's Arsenal: Don't introduce an arsenal of guns in the first chapter if you aren't going to fire each and every one of them by the end.

Another example of Chekhov's Arsenal comes from old-style text adventure games. A game text tells the player what objects they see in the room, and any manipulable object necessarily will do something further on the game. Anything that isn't crucial for navigating through the game would either go unmentioned or be mentioned in a block of text rather than being coded as an object. Although this had some quaint charm, it's a deficiency of the genre.

Chekhov's advice, in the first formulation, is to playwrights. There is a reason to think that there shouldn't be anything in the script that doesn't ultimately matter to how the play goes. If it doesn't matter what a character is wearing, then it doesn't need to be in the script. This is the kind of freedom that allows Shakespeare companies great lattitude in staging. If the actors are on the stage at the right time and say the right words, then the demands of the script are met. The rest is left to the discretion of the director and the theater company.

The second formulation refers to chapters rather than acts, and so is directed to novelists rather than playwrights. Unlike a playwright, a novelist doesn't have a director, designer, stage crew, and actors to fill in unspecified details. The novelist writes the words and they are read by the reader just as they were written. So what strikes me as sage advice to playwrights is poor advice to a novelist.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.