When I was a young writer, maybe 15 years ago (and wow does that make me feel old), I wrote a short story. Okay, I wrote many short stories, but this particular short story is our focus – one written for a creative writing class. I worked at Burger King at the time, and I had a good friend who also work there. She was a Senior, and I was a Sophomore, so I thought she might be a good person with whom I could share my story, maybe get a critique. She really enjoyed the story, save for one minor detail: I included this character named Dogg. I had put him in as a background detail, something to “set the scenery”. She said she felt a little misled because she was interested in Dogg, but he never turned out to be anything more than a background detail.
That’s when she explained to me that everything, especially in a short story, should be there for some purpose. That’s a lesson I took to heart. I have to tip my hat to Jan for that. We’re still friends on Facebook and talk from time to time, but I wonder if she realizes what a role she played in my development as a writer. Well if not, maybe she’ll see this.
Years later, I came to discover that this rule was known as Chekhov’s Gun. From Wikipedia:
Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters. Chekhov himself makes use of this principle in Uncle Vanya, in which a pistol is introduced early on as a seemingly irrelevant prop and, towards the end of the play, becomes much more important as Uncle Vanya, in a rage, grabs it and tries to commit homicide.
The TV show Lost was especially guilty of violating Chekov’s Gun. Walt’s powers, for instance, were played up as significant in early seasons, then turned out to be a plot dead end. Lots of other items on the show could also be seen as violations – like Claire’s baby having to be raised only by herself, Libby’s story, and Ben’s childhood friend (loads more here – warning some are nitpicky).
The writers claimed that most of these questions were answered in an oblique fashion if the viewers just managed to read between the lines, but frankly I feel that’s a cop-out. If, as a writer, you have to point at something and say “the answer is between the lines”, you haven’t been an effective writer. I mean, I love the show, don’t get me wrong, but it had some major flaws.
So Chekhov’s Gun is one of the key elements to keep in mind when writing a story. Some argue it’s about foreshadowing, and that’s partially true, but it’s also about in-universe consistency. For instance, a character in my current novel said he had a bad feeling about where they were going. I had no idea where that was going when I wrote that line, but I knew that I had to do something with it. The outcome worked rather well within the framework of the story, thankfully, though I imagine when one is writing by the seat of their pants they often have to go back and remove those things if they don’t have a payoff.
Return of the Jedi was particularly bad about this, because Han says he feels like he’s never going to see the Millennium Falcon again. This was, of course, a remnant of the earlier version of the film, where Lando Calrissian died. I have no idea why they left it in the final cut because it doesn’t amount to much more than a red herring.
Now there’s a thing: red herrings. Sometimes you do want to build these into a story to maintain a sense of mystery, but by the same token you don’t want to fill the story with them because you might sever the tenuous connection between reader and writer, as the reader no longer knows whether to trust you. If you can misdirect them enough to realize that they were misreading the situation from the beginning, then you look clever. It’s almost like a magic trick.
Speaking of magic, I think the novel of the Prestige does this particularly well. Given that the book is about two magicians who war with one another, it’s appropriate that there is a great deal of misdirection within the story itself. It actually took me a long time to catch on to what was going on, and I felt a lot of delight when I did. Fight Club is another example of this, with Tyler Durden’s character. Both of these books throw out red herrings but still obey Chekhov’s Gun. The questions about his sanity in Fight Club do turn out to be important. The misdirection is just as important as the events in the story.
What I’m trying to say is don’t throw out elements wily-nily without having some idea of where they’re going, and if you do, keep track of them. I keep a running list of questions I raise within a story and as I answer them, I check them off. This not only builds a sense of accountability into the plot but also helps to establish that all-important trust between writer and reader.
The Lost writers once said that they didn’t introduce any element without knowing what it was; for instance, they said they knew what the hatch was, and what was inside it. Turns out they only had a vague idea of what was in the hatch, and none of the details surrounding it. They knew “a man” was in the hatch. I think this highlights the problems that they faced: dealing in an episodic medium, it was difficult for them to go back and erase those dead ends that a normal writer would get to erase. Once they were out there, they were out there for good.
As someone who thinks that a good sense of mystery is important to a story, even if the story is not a mystery per se, I think you have to be very aware of these devices and keep a good balance when using them. I’m still not quite there in my proficiency of using these devices, which is why I’ve re-written the novel. Only by continuing to practice and read can we learn the best ways to work with these elements. I’d love to see some recommendations from others when it comes to novels that do this well.