Chekhov’s Gun: The Importance of Follow-Through in Fiction

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, also wrote short stories, essays and instructions for young writers. Probably his most famous writerly advice is this admonition:

“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.”

In other words, remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she’d better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

. . . .

Yeah, but what if that longbow is there to show us what her apartment looks like? It’s good to show her décor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends. Yes, we do want to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters. Ruth Harris told us all about that in her post on using details to create memorable characters.

But the key is how you stress those details when you first present them. If there’s a whole paragraph about those archery trophies, or the characters have a conversation about the Mongolian  horse longbow, you gotta shoot some arrows. But if there’s just a cursory mention, “her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and exotic weapons” then you can leave them on the wall.

. . . .

Wait just a goldern minute, sez you. I write mysteries. Mysteries need to have irrelevant clues and red herrings. Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true. But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings. If the deceased met his demise via arrow, probably shot by a Mongolian horse longbow, then Missy Mild-Mannered Reporter is going to look like a very viable subject to the local constabulary.

But of course she didn’t do it because she’s our hero, so the longbow and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be “fired.” Maybe not like Chekhov’s gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with. Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to “borrow” the longbow in order to make Missy look like the murderous archer.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

16 thoughts on “Chekhov’s Gun: The Importance of Follow-Through in Fiction”

  1. The bow might be mentioned as you go around the room, only one of the named items being what you’ll later find having meaning … 😉

  2. There’s an unwritten corollary to this: If you’re going to fire a pistol in the second (or third) act, it should be hanging on the wall in the first.

    I’ve read too many mysteries where an important piece of information shows up at the last minute as the sleuth explains how they solved the mystery. Or is introduced in the scene before, instead of earlier on where it naturally should have appeared.

    • On the flip side, some authors overdo this and end up telegraphing everything. Same with foreshadowing.
      Babylon 5 was good at many things but it foreshadowed (and recapitulated) stuff to death like it was a powerpoint presentation.

      It is okay to imply some things and let readers fill in the blanks. “Yes, the reporter has an bunch of archery trophies. And the victim was shot from afar with a bow and arrow…”

      “Hmm, the reporter could’ve made that shot…”

      In mysteries, in particular, part of the fun is getting the reader to play detective. Trusting tbe reader is tricky but necessary. And onions make for great stories.

    • I was going to make this same point. The “Chekov’s gun” as stated above is an iffy proposition for novels. I’ve heard defenses of it, but I’ve also heard the argument that Chekov was writing for the theater, where props and time are both at a premium, and in a novel you can include things that aren’t particularly relevant but are just cool and help flesh out the world. The archery trophies and bow could just be there to show that the reporter is not a strictly intellectual person but enjoys physical activity.

      On the other hand, if you’re going to make your mild-mannered reporter a suspect due to her archery prowess you need to, if not actually show the bow, establish early on that she’s the sort of person who might have one. Say she’s a hunter, even if you don’t establish that she hunts in bow season. Or say that she likes to do reenactments in her free time and goes out on the prairie to live as a Mongol for the weekend, which a save reader will recognize might include archery. If you keep her the simple mild-mannered report until the last chapter, where it’s revealed she’s an expert archer, your book will justifiably get walled.

    • I have more problems with guns planting themselves on the mantlepiece when I THOUGHT I was just setting the scene or something.

      But revising in all the guns can be fun, too.

  3. One could argue that tbe proper term here isn’t follow-through but rather set-up. Follow through implies tbat if something is put in, it has a purpose. Set up is about making sure that what happens in the story has been planned for so it fits in seamlessly.

    Neither is easy. Leaving out backstory that doesn’t feed the narrative is as important as tilling the soil for further events. Otherwise tbe story can get cluttered by non-sequiturs and unintentional dead ends.

    Not sure it needs much reinforcement but with the lifting of word count straightjacketing in ebooks it might be worth some added thought.

  4. Ah, the most recent, infamous example of this problem is Charlie in “Wonder Woman.” Charlie is a sniper who has lost his sniping mojo. At an important moment, he just can’t get his snipe on (2:36 mark). Surely, then, he’s going to overcome this little setback and shoot something to smithereens later? Oh, he doesn’t? What was the point then? I suspect the writers just thought they needed an excuse for the “Diana! Shield!” a few seconds later.

    At the time I thought of Charlie’s situation as an example of the perils of elevating plot over character, but it also works as an example of a Chekhovian “gun jam,” if that’s what you call it when the gun doesn’t go off.

    • I suspect it was to highlight Diana’s compasionate side as a contrast to her kickass warrior side.

      Plus PTSD wasn’t recognized as a medical issue; officers were known to slap the “shellshocked” to motivate them. One of the best aspects of that movie was the time period selected.

      • Well, Diana’s compassionate side was already highlighted before that part of the movie, I thought. Even when she’s fighting the soldiers in the room a few seconds before Charlie’s moment, she actually holds her sword by the blade and smacks one guy with the hilt instead. She was trying not to kill the soldiers, and IIRC she thought the evils of the war were external to human nature. Diana was too innocent to understand that humans didn’t need Ares to make war. Her approach was akin to “don’t kill the lesser vampires, just kill the head vampire — Ares — and the others will go back to normal.”

        Her compassionate approach to the fights was an important aspect of her character. Charlie’s situation wasn’t needed to demonstrate her virtues, that’s why it was such a head-scratcher. It stands out, mainly because so much of the movie is so good.

        • She still beat the crap out of the germans. 😉
          (Some she threw out of second story windows.)

          Different kinds of compassion? Charlie was in to say war makes victims of all, even “winners”.
          I found more fault with the checklist diversity of Steve’s buddies, is all.

  5. Yes, thank you.

    If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she’d better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

    I see the mild-mannered reporter with the bow on her wall, using that bow at the end of the story to kill the murderer.

    Miss Meadows Official Trailer #1 (2014) – Katie Holmes Movie HD

    Here is an extreme? version of that.

    READY OR NOT Trailer (2019) Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Horror Movie

    This goes into my Story folder. Her name is Archer, and sometimes she goes out “hunting.”

  6. Whatever you are going to use has to be available. But not everything available has to be used.

  7. Your mild-manner reporter can then identify an archer by the pattern of callouses on the finger.

    Or identifies a valuable piece of Mongolian artwork as a fraud.

    Of course, after that, she can then use it to defend herself against the murderer, or shoot a message out the window.

  8. I have to admit, I now want to read a book about the mild-mannered Mongol archer reporter. She sounds pretty awesome to me.

      • Heh, well thank you, but I’m not a writer so I think you might be disappointed. I’m just a librarian who has followed publishing news for years. If someone writes it though, I’d buy it for the library 🙂

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