Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Today’s Wednesday Words installment is about gun safety: the proper techniques for loading and handling Chekhov’s Gun. This is based on advice from Anton Chekhov, a highly skilled writer of novels, plays, and short stories, who is quoted as saying: “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.” (You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the various elaborations and variations on this idea in the entry on TV Tropes.) Chekhov was talking about economy: don’t pad your work with miscellaneous junk that’s not going to be useful. I’m turning it upside down today and talk about how I’ve handled the minor Chekhovian items in my WIP.

As I worked through my first draft, I came again and again on situations where I needed something to be there, but I hadn’t set it up ahead of time. Rather than stop now to describe the lamp that’s now being chopped up for parts, I recognize that this is a pop-pistol version of Chekhov’s gun. I need to hang that puppy on the wall at an earlier point, so I can now just reach up and grab it.

There are lots of techniques for loading that gun. I’m some of my readers are using Scrivener, and you might be able to post information about how to do this effortlessly in that system. Everyone I know loves it, but it’s never clicked with me. I do my writing the old fashioned way, with a quill pen in word-processing files, so here’s how I handle it. As I’m reaching up for a gun that’s not there, I add a marginal comment right then that I need to set this up. Later, when I’m looking back at the work for the last few days, I see that note and poke around in earlier chapters until I find a good place to plant it, and I drop another marginal note at that point, something like: “Describe lamp – you’ll need it in Chapter 8.”

Here’s a specific example. For reasons I don’t want to explain now (you’ll have to read it when it’s published *grin*), my main character Kay has to be able at a climactic point in the story to reach into a kind of space she can’t really see to find a weapon. That invisible, almost intangible space is the ghostly remnant of the pantry in the kitchen of the hotel where she works. To set this up I have the following passage, which will appear on roughly Page 3 of the book:

I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal. Still, I had to be careful, because there were some steak knives in the tray and they had to go in the drawer the right way ’round. When I first started here I earned a rap on the knuckles for getting some of the knives backward. “Some day,” Jana said, “you will reach in there, going quickly, looking not so much.” She managed to glare down her nose at me, which isn’t easy for someone who didn’t reach my shoulder. “One knife is backward, and you will maybe wish someone had been more careful.” I bowed my head and apologized sweetly, because losing a job in two days would have been a record, even for me, and she let me off with just the glare.

I’m pleased with this passage because it does several things at once, which every paragraph in the book should do to earn its keep. Here’s what I was trying to accomplish in these 154 words:

  • Grounding the action in the present time, showing what Kay (the narrator) is doing at the time when things start going seriously awry.
  • Illuminating something of Kay’s personality with those last few lines about how losing her job so quickly would have been a record, “even for me.” It says she’s not someone who is known for sticking around for the long haul.
  • Showing Jana’s character, in that she’s a stickler for procedures, isn’t above rapping a new employee’s knuckles, is considerably shorter than Kay, and speaks English with an accent (I’ve written before about writing an accent).
  • Loading that gun. When Kay realizes later that she can reach into the back wall of that pantry, hidden though it is with magical glamour, she knows just where to find a knife. At that time she will spare a thought of thanks for Jana’s insistence on doing things right.

If you think about Chekhov’s Gun and how it works in your writing, then when you reach up it’s there — and BOOM!

How have you handled situations like this in your writing? Share your ideas with the rest of us.

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