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Chekhov’s Gun and Writing Backwards

So, a bit like Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, my characters are living life backwards. Sort of. I had to do something unusual-for-me with Shikhari #5, that being write the first chunk, then jump to the end, then work backwards. The reason is Chekhov’s Gun*.

Several objects appeared in the first four chapters of the book. I needed to ensure that they reappeared at the end of the book, so I jumped and wrote the climactic scene. OK, that and a new rock/epic music recording that didn’t fit a courtroom-type scene. I established the Dramatic End with Objects. Yeah me. Except then I had to go back and fill everything in. Why were certain characters separated from others. Why was one child here, and the other there? Why didn’t the adult just use Other Device? And how to make certain it was foreshadowed properly? Where’s the dog?

Sigh.

This is not how I normally write. I tend to do start to finish, with a few scenes tucked in here and there in my really broad sketch of what will happen. Then I just write up to those scenes, trim them to fit as needed, then continue on. This book required working backwards for several thousand words, to get people and objects where they needed to be. Only then could I return to where I’d left off (the courtroom) and resume writing.

I have a strange feeling that I will alternate writing backwards and forwards until everything meets in the middle. It makes my writer brain itch to do it this way, but necessary bits keep popping up at odd moments and I have to fit them in so I can then keep writing the main flow of events.

The worst part is I’ll write something, back up my work, close the files and go on about my business. Then hours or a day later, something pops up from the depths of my subconscious not unlike a beach-ball popping up from the water. “Oh, I need to account for [person]. What if they are doing [that thing]? And I can add wombeasts, which will explain [vaguely sort of plot-shaped idea] that might be foreshadowed in chapter two?”  Of course, I am 2/3 asleep, or at Day Job, when this happens and I have to remember it for later use.

Granted, if all works properly, I will not have alpha readers red-lining the manuscript and demanding to know where THAT came from, and why isn’t So-and-so in the scene, because So-and-So was just there, and their job is to deal with THAT, or to guard the protagonist, or So-and-so is the expert so why not ask them…

So, how do you keep track of the McGuffin, or Chekhov’s Gun, or the character who should be there but isn’t?

 

*For those unfamiliar with the term, the Russian writer Chekhov was most insistent that the gun that appeared in Act One of the play must be used in Act Three. Conversely, the gun in Act Three should be on the mantle, or referred to, or mentioned in passing in Act One.

35 Comments
  1. c4c

    January 20, 2019
  2. My theory is that any detail that I can’t remember without writing it down doesn’t belong in my story. I don’t want my readers to have to take notes to keep details straight. If it is important for some reason to specify the make and model of a car (for example, Agony’s car in The Book Of Lost Doors says something about her as a person) I’ll mention it. Otherwise, it’s just “my car” or “Joe’s car”.

    The same thing with characters–is this someone that the reader, if she or he was present, would get to know as a person? If not, why waste time with names? “The guy who answered the door” is all you need to know.

    I try to keep my prose as decluttered as possible.

    As far as Chekhov’s gun is concerned, I think it’s just about the worst writing advice anyone ever gave. It leads to stories in which everything feels like a stage set–nothing is there just because it would really be there, it all has a purpose. Things in real life aren’t like that. Sometimes there is a gun hanging on the wall just because the owner of the house likes guns.

    In fact, there’s a scene I’ve always wanted to write in which a collector of movie and TV memorabilia proudly points to a Star Trek phaser on display and says, “That’s not a reproduction, it’s an original series prop–Walter Koenig used it in several episodes.”

    And then never mention it again.

    January 20, 2019
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      On the other hand, if your characters need a gun for the climatic scene, by showing it ahead of time, there’s not readers’ surprise when the gun “pops out of nowhere”.

      Yes, you can put that gun on the wall and never use it but you also don’t want a “magical gun” that appears out of nowhere when the characters need it.

      January 20, 2019
      • There’s an important distinction between “everything that gets used must first be mentioned” and ” everything that gets mentioned must be used. ”

        January 20, 2019
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Agree, but I’m saying that it’s a mis-use of “Chekhov’s Gun” to say that everything mentioned in a novel must be used later on.

          January 20, 2019
          • The most common version of it that I’ve seen is “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.”

            I’m not sure how else you could interpret that.

            January 20, 2019
    • As I recall, and it’s been a few years so I might be off a bit, objects used to define character or to set a scene are different from Chekhov’s Gun. So you can describe a specific car, or the collector’s scene, and it’s not something that must reappear later. As I understood it, the point is the reader or play-goer gets unhappy when someone pulls a weapon – or personality trait, or a person appears – out of nowhere and captures/injures/kills the bad guy, acts totally out of character, or whatever is needed to end the story.

      The exception might be a Gilbert and Sullivan play, a farce, or a melodrama. People expect odd things in those types of dramas and stories. (Read the plot synopsis of _H.M.S. Pinafore_ for an example.)

      January 20, 2019
      • TRX #

        Chekhov’s advice was intended for short stories or perhaps a stage play, which is short and sparse by novel standards, and can only *show* unless a character goes off into a data dump of some kind.

        Given that “Russian novel” is synonymous with “absurdly long book”, it’s doubtful he intended his advice for novels.

        For a novel there’s more *stuff*. Most of it is for “color”, to fill out the story. Your character goes to an appointment; if you mention the cabbie or receptionist, they don’t have to have any further part in the story. If he flies on a plane and you mention the type of plane, the airline name, or name of the airport, that doesn;t have to be important later, either.

        There’s nothing specifically wrong about Chekhov’s Gun, but it’s a rule for a different art form; and it’s not universally useful for a novel.

        January 20, 2019
    • A well done Chekov’s Gun seems like it is set dressing amid lots of other set dressing. Only in hindsight do we realize it was there in some form all along. I see it as a way to keep you from forgetting about proving a solution to the problem.

      For example, a comeplte failure of this can be seen in the Mass Effect video game series. You got giant galaxy destroying monsters on the doorstep but you manage to slow down their invasion for the first game. Then you go off on an odd little jaunt that ends up seeming important (if out of the blue) in the second. In the third, the invasion has commenced and the solution is….completely random and never alluded to at all before. “We found some plans for a thing somewhere, we’re not sure what it does, but you go so some stuff while we build it.” Everything you did in the second game had no meaning in the overarching plot. Using Checkov’s Gun as a guiding principle here could have helped smooth the flow of the story. It lost focus on its core conflict.

      January 20, 2019
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Shamus Young makes the argument that the flaws of the Mass Effect trilogy are a result of the writing teams for the games not following a single coordinated plan. That ME1 implies one trilogy, ME2 another, and ME3 a third.

        January 20, 2019
        • Now I’m fighting a horrible impulse to write a description of a room with the oriental rugs, and the blue curtains, and the gun on the mantle. So in the big fight, the Bad Guy gets tangled in the curtains, rolled in a rug and hauled off to the police department.

          January 20, 2019
          • OldNFO #

            No, rolled in the rug and dumped in the river… 🙂

            January 20, 2019
        • I agree. I know people adore BioWare, and some of their games certainly have a place in my heart, but I think they’re not as great as everyone says they are. I don’t think they’re very good at coming up with a coherent plot for longer than one game and they may no longer be able to do that.

          The ME trilogy is an interesting study in series coherency failure. It’s sci-fi, so coming up with a semi-decent fix in the third installment wouldn’t have been that hard and I’m confused as to why they didn’t. Timeline, maybe.

          January 20, 2019
          • Robin Munn #

            With any game, there’s often the “got rushed to meet a sales deadline” story-killer lurking around. There is lots of foreshadowing in Mass Effect 2 or 3 (can’t recall which) around dark energy — lots of characters mention it in an offhand kind of way, and so on — but that foreshadowing is never followed up on. I believe it’s because the marketing team told the developers something like, “We release next month whether or not you’re finished”, and they had to drop the not-yet-finished missions involving the dark energy plot.

            January 20, 2019
            • snelson134 #

              That would be the norm for any software project.

              January 23, 2019
    • My theory is that any detail that I can’t remember without writing it down doesn’t belong in my story. I don’t want my readers to have to take notes to keep details straight.

      I think there is an argument for leaving in extra details that readers aren’t likely to remember. Some of my favorite books get read and re-read (and/or listened to as an audio book). When I re-read (or listen to) those books, sometimes I’ll notice things I hadn’t noticed before. Occasionally, I’ll see something that I just glossed over as unimportant, only to find that now that I have read book 4 in the series, that seemingly throw-away line in book one actually MEANS something. I love when that happens.

      January 21, 2019
  3. The trouble with writing the end first is that I find myself bored with what happened before. I like my ending to spring from what has happened. Of course, I accept that while writing the story I will introduce things that I need to go back and add, but I feel that’s intrinsically a part of the process that differentiates the act of writing from the act of reading.

    January 20, 2019
    • I’ve had that problem in the past. With this series, the journey is a large part of the fun for me (and the agony, and pulling-out-of-hair, and…).

      January 20, 2019
      • My stories usually start with a single scene. Sometimes the first, sometimes the last. Occasionally the middle somewhere. It can be a real challenge to figure out how to get there from a cold start.

        January 20, 2019
    • Or stuck, because you can’t figure out how to connect the pieces. Like the old meme.

      1.) begin awesome story
      2.) introduce characters and get reader to care for them
      3.) ???
      4.) PROFIT!! (dramatic ending)

      January 21, 2019
  4. Reziac #

    I tend to write too sparely, which means everything we see winds up having a ‘purpose’… and I write in no order whatsoever; rather, as scenes come to me, so I’m frequently backing up to find where something came from.

    End result is I don’t have Chekhov’s Gun, I have Chekhov’s whole bloody armory!!

    January 20, 2019
  5. George Phillies #

    Checkov’s gun might work better if you do a detailed desciription of the room. If you only mention that I have a slide rule, an abacus, and two chalk holders hanging over my fireplace, the reader gets suspicious. If you also mention the desk includng the classic lemonade bottle filled with flowering astromeria, two large computers under the desk, and a stack of books including Steeb’s Continuous Symmetries and Lie Algebras, the image is a bit different.

    January 20, 2019
  6. There have been times I realized I hadn’t written down the foreshadowing.

    I’m thinking “of course Alice would have a gun in her pocket, she’s a paranoid shit magnet” but then I realize I didn’t -write it down-. Couple of people have told me that, I went back and fixed it. Some pretty good scenes happened that way.

    -I- know who she is, because she’s sitting on the couch in my cranial living room with her feet up on the coffee table, telling me some anecdote about killing zombies. She won’t shut up, actually, keeps complaining I write too slow.

    But the reader doesn’t know. She hasn’t taken up residence in their brain yet. But she will, if I have anything to say about it.

    January 20, 2019
  7. Speaking as a reviewer, I’ll just point out that one advantage to an intricate plot with excellent foreshadowing is that it creates a work that can be a real pleasure to read twice, with the second read being a different but richer experience.

    Also, I think one of the finest experiences any writer can give a reader is what I call the “aha moment.” That’s the point where you figure out what’s really going on in the story and realize that you should have known it all along. The moment when all the pieces click.

    Stories that pull that off are rare, but, IMHO, they’re the very best the genre has to offer.

    January 20, 2019
  8. Screw Chekhov’s gun. What about TXRed’s new epic recording? You tantalize fellow fans of the musical genre but never identify the recording. Perhaps I already have it, but I’ll never know if you don’t provide details!

    January 20, 2019
    • “Northern Steel” and ‘Throne of the North” by Antti Martikanien. The soundtrack to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is also excellent and very much worth the price of admission.

      January 20, 2019
      • Thanks! I’ve got Antti’ “Adventuria Vol. 1” and “Synthesia,” so appreciate new recommendations. I’ll look into Skyrim, too.

        January 22, 2019
  9. OldNFO #

    Since I don’t write linearly most of the time, I don’t have too many issues… Shaddap Muse… But I DO occasionally have to ‘fix’ earlier chapters… sigh… 😀

    January 20, 2019
    • You don’t have a real problem until you find yourself wanting to “fix” earlier books.

      January 20, 2019
  10. Mary #

    Make notes.

    Unless I have to go back and throw something in — then I just go do it. Even if it’s not plot-relevant. 0:)

    January 20, 2019
  11. I just finished reading a reasonably true book about a Revolutionary war hero doctor, and twice the book suddenly made a statement that had no backup. As in, so-and-so was treated for that wound till he died, and when I looked he had not, not, not been mentioned, though five others had. Really threw me out. It was an odd book anyway because, sometimes, a person’s life has no story arc. Reading about all his great promise but then he is, you know, dead, was very weird.

    January 20, 2019
  12. In the dieselpunk-ish alternate history tale “The Flying Cloud”, the protagonists stumble across a pair of war surplus tanks in Australia, one of which is named “Checkov’s Gun.” Would it surprise anybody to learn that the protagonists find themselves having to face it a few episodes later?

    January 20, 2019
  13. 23 c4c

    January 21, 2019

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