Forgotten Words

Chekhov’s Guns Explanation

Chekhov’s Gun(s) If you show a gun on the wall on page one, you’d better show the gun firing by the end of the book.


Chekhov’s Gun, the rule, helps you cut out unnecessary description. It makes you think about which descriptions are necessary, and which are…well, purple. Is it vital that you elaborate on character’s clothing for a page and a half?

 

Yes, you might say.

 

The brooch she is wearing emits a light when a demon is near; her shirt is stained red because she slew a dragon and dragon-blood stains. She wears boots because she finds heels highly uncomfortable, and she always wants to be prepared for a fight. This might explain the leather armor that she wears under her loose clothes too.

 

These clothing descriptions are Chekhov’s guns. If no demon appears from nowhere (only alerted by the brooch); if the fighter’s guild doesn’t ask for proof of the dragon slaying; if she doesn’t have to fight in the middle of a gala, then you have let these guns go unfired. Of course, there are many ways that either of these guns could be fired. So ultimately it does change based on how you’re writing it. But by the last page… bam.

 

You can make your prose as purple as a platypus, but what’s the point? Why do you go into so much detail describing the meal, the clothing? So what? You no doubt know of authors who describe unnecessary clothing, and random meals ad nauseam. I’ll offer a few counterpoints to this:

They no doubt are established authors (with established fan-bases) and can then afford to bend the rules (and make no mistake: Chekhov’s gun is a rule. Whether you know it and follow it, or not; it’s there. It’s as golden a rule as “always end your sentences with punctuation.”). [Author’s note: I’m fairly certain that I may have created a ripple in time, a disturbance in the force, a lapse in the source-code. Four punctuation marks next to each other should be impossible. I’m still uncertain as to whether they are actually correct.] 

As an unestablished author, you want your writing to be concise, and strong. A common misconception of extremely long books (especially by wet-authors) is that they’re only long because the author rambled (much like I’m doing in this blog post), or doesn’t know how to self-edit (I should edit out these parenthetical asides, but I won’t for the irony).

As an unestablished author, if you plan to query for traditional publishing, you should cap yourself off at 120 thousand words (depending on your genre). Any more than that, and you risk agents throwing out your work without reading it. Writers are investments. Agents don’t want to sink a huge investment into a manuscript they don’t know will succeed. If you’re going to self-publish, have at it, but know that the larger your book is, the more you’re going to be charged to print it (even through Amazon, which has a base print-fee, plus a rate per word; this gets pricey as you near 100 thousand words).

 

If you’ve got a police officer as a MC, don’t tell us that he or she has a PHD in philosophy unless it has relevance to the plot. Is an activity or class lesson remembered which enables him or her to solve the case? We would need to see this, preferably long enough before the resolution (or firing) of that particular gun.

 

Chekhov’s gun is a foreshadow tool. On a basic level, it is really extensive pre-planning. It’s the gun which kills your Deus Ex Machina criticisms. These guns are central to upping your writing game. I stand by this. When you fire the gun, many times you catch your readers unaware. They might not remember the gun hanging on the wall. But when it fires, they’re like: Ooh!

 

I truly believe that it is a sign of good writing.

 

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