Chekhov’s Gun

Reality is billions bits of apparent junk-data, much of which has little demonstrable impact on anything else. Maybe to God it all makes sense, fits into a predictable pattern. But realistically to the rest of us, 99.99999% of the data inputs we’re getting don’t even register, let alone form a predictive path. Out of my window I can a see at least fifty butterflies flapping around a flowering tree. The type of tree, the wind speed and the scent and color they perceive the flowers to be (almost certainly not the white I see) mean a great deal to the butterflies. One flap of one the butterfly wings may well have vast effects in chaos theory, but it isn’t apparent to me.

Humans see patterns (as in join the dots, or seeing A means you will find B, if C is true – the more variables and assessment of probability the better the pattern-recognition is). It’s a major survival tool, improving your chances and, evolutionarily speaking, the course we’ve followed as a species to be the fittest that DO survive. (I mean, there are a number of possible courses. Be like a tardigrade ( look them up. Seriously, you need to know this, especially if you write sf). Or a virus. Or breed like mussel (90% gonad – despite appearances there are no humans or even mammals that can really compete on this))

Pattern recognition isn’t of course limited to humans – anything but. But we also apply cognitive processing of a very high order to it (compared, for instance to mussels – at least most of us do, most of the time, although you’d not think it when we let the gonads take over – at maybe quarter of a percent of our body-weight. Imagine what men would be like if they had the same percentage as mussels). That pattern recognition behavior has us trying to apply it to everything in all cases – even ones where in fact, no humanly discerned pattern exists. We search relentlessly for those patterns, change our ‘filters’ and even invent patterns – because as a species we’re the end product of millennia of selection for looking for patterns that allow us to predict outcomes, whether that outcome is finding dinner or avoiding being it.

So what does this have to with Chekhov or his firearms? Or writing for that matter? (there has to be a pattern somewhere in all this, right?) Well, maybe not. ‘Chekhov’s gun’ refer’s that if a writer describes the gun in scene one, before the end it will be used. There are no extraneous things in the story – everything is there because it has a function in the story (is part of the pattern, to put it another way).

Now, there are those that say this makes for colorless and predictable stories. Hemingway apparently thought the idea worth of mockery and liked putting inconsequential details in his stories. The question of course arises: when is a detail inconsequential to the reader making the pattern of the story? When it is telling you something about the character, or their background? Then it is plainly not inconsequential, because it adds to the pattern.

I suppose it is an inconsequential detail which adds nothing (he bought a Greenberg tomato and and a few slices of Mondrini pepperoni, and bottle of Limosala anchovies ) – which as I just made up the tomato, anchovy and pepperoni type actually only convey the fact I can make brand-names and be unnecessarily verbose. An author I know slightly was looking for suggestions for a ringtone for her character’s phone. Now, it is possible that the author could convey legions of information about her character with this sort of detail, if arb people on the internet make suggestions, not knowing the character or much about what is be conveyed by this information – it’s probably inconsequential. Not guaranteed of course, because the author could still adjust the character around that.

But does it MATTER to the writer? Or, rather, does it matter to the reader? Patterns, remember. Readers are looking for them. Yes, we’re able to filter, and to find patterns and implications in things that probably have none… but yes, the reader wants to find ‘pattern’ – hence even by Hemingway’s admission finding symbolism and significance in these details (the author may well have put those in without meaning to – they were just adding wordage, and for example, trying to sound worldly or posh or poor or whatever). It’s not wrong, but like most things, including anchovies (Limosala or not) too much can ruin a good story. Too little MAY make it predictable and colorless… but once again that may depend on the complexity of the story. After all, it may be that there are hundreds or thousands of details which ARE consequential.

I tend toward the Chekhov side of the equation, because I believe people like having those patterns – which in turn produces several patterns 1) I recall some of my peers moaning about editors shortening their manuscripts… I was gobsmacked. Mine always grow. 2)Perhaps my books are predictable, but it is not a complaint I’ve had. I strive for the classic hallmark of a good murder-mystery. WHEN the denouement arrives, it seems obvious and natural – but you had all the clues and still didn’t see it coming too far off, if at all. 3)Because there is actually a fair amount of detail used in foreshadowing and shaping the characters and story, and I am a monkey of very small brain… It can be really exhausting. Just making up shit of no consequence to the story is much easier. 🙂

Now on another subject: I tried to reactivate my mailing list that elderly win 7 computer would not let me access. I now have laptop with win 10… and MailCimp has eaten it. So I’ve had to start again, with Mailerlite. I’ll be updating my site as well, which I also could not access. The link is here if you’re interested.

37 thoughts on “Chekhov’s Gun

  1. I recall soi-disant critics complaining about J.R.R. Tolkien going on for pages of useless description.
    And my wondering what book they’d actually read.

    1. The thing that really killed me was realizing, after reading the Silmarillion, that various Valar and Maiar were often bending their attention on the Hobbits at pivotal times when they thought they were alone. It’s very freaky and a good trick.

  2. I describe what the character sees. Then this detail or that one tells me it’s a gun. Seldom when it will be fired. . . .

  3. Your comment about choosing a ring tone reminded me of the very first time I learned the new phones would let you do that. An acquaintance was using, “Ding-dong, the Witch is Dead,” for her mother-in-law. Context is everything.

    1. I have characters use the opening of ‘Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” as the ring-tone when the senior Hunter calls. He only calls when there’s big trouble that THEY get to deal with.

  4. True story, an author of our mutual acquaintance got roundly chastised by a so called “editor” for including what he termed a “bb gun” in her alt history parody of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Said doofus never bothered to do his due diligence and determine that the Girardoni air rifle was an air gun designed by Italian inventor Bartolomeo Girardoni circa 1779, and featured a prominent role in the real expedition.
    I’ve heard countless other cases where such “editors” would commonly red pen actual facts and replace them with common misconceptions and fables.

    1. In a writers’ group, I was once criticized for getting the laws wrong in Madeleine and the Mists, which takes place in an imaginary kingdom in an imaginary world.

  5. The problem with Chekhov’s Gun is that it assumes that the only thing you can do with a firearm is shoot somebody with it. Maybe a character who needs money will decide to sell the gun rather than using it to rob a store. Or maybe it’s there to let the reader know that this character is the kind of person who owns firearms and it has no other relevance to the plot. Those details that a writer chooses to include in a story should be relevant to the story, but not necessarily relevant in the way that the reader assumes.

    1. Or they got it from Uncle Checkov– and that your uncle passed it down to you instead of someone else, is important.

      Or they’re not supposed to have a gun.

      Or the characters didn’t use the gun that is right there, and instead killed someone with dynamite.

  6. It seems to me that if one knows that a character might have x or y sorts of things playing on their phone, and one is only familiar with a few examples of x, or of y, and none of them are exactly correct, you might want to talk to folks who know x or y.

    Me, I think that sounds like too much work for such a detail, and ringtones aren’t that meaningful to me anyway. I am a lazy bum, and perhaps also a lazy bum.

    1. :big grin: But they’re so fun to talk about!

      My generic ringtone right now is: “HADOKEN! HADOKEN! HADOKEN! HADOKEN!”

      Not because it’s the group-battle tactic I use in fighting games (although it totally is), and not because I’m good at Street Fighter (I’m not), or even because Ryu means dragon and I like dragons (although I do).

      It’s because that sound clip both gets my attention and makes me smile, which makes for much more pleasant interactions over the phone.

      1. I always thought Hadoken was the same as a Kamahamaha attack, just of lower power.
        It was kind of cool while stationed in Okinawa that I was living in the Ryukyu Islands. Never saw a dragon, except for the carved stone ones.

        1. Funny you should mention that thought, the anime clip I got my ring tone from ends with the Hadoken! yelling individual going into Kamahamaha as a final attack….
          (That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime)

      2. One of the most tightly-written movies that I ever saw, which had a purpose for just about every little bit which the viewer initially would think was just a careless throwaway bit – was Adventures in Babysitting. Seriously, every little element had a reason for being there, and eventually showing up to tie the various plot threads together. The Playboy Magazine. The little sister’s rollerskates and obsession with Thor. The babysitter telling the story of the hook-handed man.
        It was the movie-making equivalent of one of those intricate marquetry puzzle-boxes. Everything had a reason for being there, but you only saw it at the end.

  7. My children fixed my hipusbsnds ringtone . They made it sound like an ancient truck being started. It was hilarious. I can think of three different ways to make this detail re,
    Levantine in a story.
    Further I read Joy ComethWith the Mourning and certain details seem to me clearly there to act as background for the important details. Camouflage as it were. I loved that book. I also can’t see this comment since something is wrong with my screen. I hope it’s readable!

  8. There is a balance and degrees of relevance. If every detail is SUPREMELY IMPORTANT, there will either be not that many of them or the reader will quickly get confused. Sometime the author is more enamored of the details than the readers (see: skip three pages of botany lessons every time Aia (or whatever her name is) enters a forest). But leaving everything but the supremely relevant out does tend to make for a flat story. The _Merchant_ series is very vividly written and I think the amount of detail has a lot to do with it. (Although I now know more about making salt than I ever wanted to; for me, the balance tipped a bit too far on that one, but not far enough to skip ahead.)

    I find the brands of shoes oddly jarring in the Kurtherian books. Details about women’s clothes often do that because I have no idea what they are. “What type of skirt?!? That has a name?” Even so, the series is so _not_ about that sort of thing that it stands out.

    but not necessarily relevant in the way that the reader assumes.
    This! I love those surprises – even when that’s what exonerates the first suspect (my most-hated trope). It’s nice to see characters making the same assumptions the reader makes.

    And my wondering what book they’d actually read.
    That’s easy: The Simarilian.

    1. I was once annoyed with a novel because two characters were traveling along a road with no description. Not botany, but that two experienced fighters didn’t notice whether it was dangerous for ambushes, and whether they could get to a place less exposed if they were attacked by superior forces.

    2. I’m not Michael, so can’t say what the intent is – but the shoes, etc. are what I call a “characterization device.” In this case, BA is shown to have a feminine side; she’s not a monotone Queen Bitch. This actually served him well in the story arc where she was in her Baba Yaga phase; not a single mention of a fascination with shoes – thus accentuating the personality change in her madness.

      I try to use this with my characters, also – there is a “Hobbies, Other Interests” section in my character definitions. They usually have nothing whatsoever to do with moving the story line along, but bring the character to life, even if only glancingly mentioned. (Although one for a main protagonist does serve at one point to move the romantic subplot with the other protagonist along. It varies.)

  9. As Larry Correia pointed out, Chekov was a playwright, not a novelist. And generally, a playwright needs to be more mindful about whether props are really needed or not. If the playwright specifies that there MUST be a gun on the mantle, there should be a reason for that.

    But really, I find the “If a gun is on the wall in Act 1, it has to be fired in Act 3” the less interesting and useful part of Chekov’s gun. The more interesting part is the other half: given that you know there’s going to be a shooting in Act 3, how do you make sure that the audience sees the gun in Act 1 without dancing around it pointing and saying, “You see this? Y’all see this? This is going to be important, so be sure you notice that it’s here!”

    I have a really hard time balancing that. I either spend so much time pointing at the gun that my beta readers say, “Okay, we get it, there’s a gun there, I’m sure it’ll get fired later, you can move on now” or I stick in the mention of it so subtly that at shooting time, everyone says, “Wait, really? There was a gun? Where did that come from?”

    1. One useful trick is to make something serve an obvious purpose early so its more important but later one is a surprise.

      Also, surprising uses for guns can sometimes help.

  10. Now, it is possible that the author could convey legions of information about her character with this sort of detail, if arb people on the internet make suggestions, not knowing the character or much about what is be conveyed by this information – it’s probably inconsequential. Not guaranteed of course, because the author could still adjust the character around that.

    Ahahah, I bet I know what scene (type) the author needed that for!
    The random ring tone breaks the tension in a scene– and you don’t know it’s *perfect* for the character/scene/moment until you hear it.

    I asked for help for book (preferably out of copyright fiction) for a character to offer a guest, because I was utterly blanking– and about the sixth offered suggestion was just absolutely perfect, both for the book being important to the guy offering it, and for it being a sort of sneaky, funny-once-the-reader-figures-it-out joke, giving me a chance to establish just how incredibly WRONG one of the characters is about How The World Works, it gives me an opening to explain the world at some point in the future (that’s why I needed a book that is *currently* out of copyright for something thousands of years in the future!), and I realized I could use it to set up a very important assumption for a character that won’t be introduced for like half the book.

    ….but I only knew that because I’d been taught the rule that every detail should matter. (and I know other folks come up with things I never would’ve thought of)

  11. Sometimes it can be interesting to have the gun on the mantel and you -don’t- use it in act three. Act three is about what you do instead of shoot the bad guy.

    I’m far enough along in my series now that having giant tanks running around armed with nuclear weapons is getting to be a side issue. They’re too big, right? If they really fire the main gun, a whole city turns to an expanding ash cloud. How many times can you do that in a series?

    So the fun turns out to be how to -not- use the full capability of the invincible Valkyries, or the titanic planet-killer starship, and so forth.

    1. The weirdest thing about epic battles does seem to be how the most epic seem to have the deepest words, “the swamp burned for days” or “and they pursued him for so long they thought it was a ghost, not a man they fought in the palace’s halls.”

      It is the preparation, the build up, and the showing of just how ridiculously powerful the things stalking the character are that set the mind up to fill in all the details.

      You also can do it, maybe once per book too..

  12. Sorry to go off topic, But I’ve just finished my first book, and I’m working my way through all of the steps to get it up on Amazon. I’ve been lurking here for a while, and I’ve read most of the excellent FAQ posts.

    I’d like to get the the group’s opinion of the blurb for my book, ‘Texas at the Coronation’:

    In the seventy years since the end of a devastating war, the Republic of Texas has pretty much kept to itself. But now, with war clouds looming over Europe for the second time in less than thirty years, the young nation finds itself being pulled onto the world stage.

    Texas, along with several other nations, has been invited to participate in a naval review as part of the celebrations for Britain’s new King, George VI The task falls to the elderly armored cruiser San Antonio and her new captain, Karl von Stahlberg.

    Along the way, Karl and his men will make new friends and enemies, leading to an encounter with their nation’s ancient foe. Can they avoid striking the spark that ignites a new war?

    1. It’s not bad, I’m certainly intrigued, but I’m somewhat curious about why they’d need to go all the way to Europe to have a run-in with Mexico (unless there’s a different ancient foe for Texas in your world).

    2. “For seventy years, the Republic of Texas kept to itself. But it would be rude not to attend the international naval review celebrating England’s new king, George VI. So with war clouds over Europe, Texas sends the elderly armored cruiser, San Antonio, and her young captain, Karl Von Stahlberg.

      “While making new friends and meeting Texas’ ancient foe, can Karl and his men stay out of war?’

  13. I wish I could just “make up sh*t of no consequence to the story.” In fact, I wish I could make up a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, I was primed in college to disdain writers who have no practical knowledge of what they’re writing (IIRC, Mark Twain despised James Fenimore Cooper because he had no idea about distances and just threw numbers with no bearing on reality into his stories). Then I went on to become a technical writer tasked with learning subjects that I could translate into plain English for non-technical readers, supposedly trained to usability test such writing to make sure that the readers understood what I’d attempted to communicate. I can’t seem to shake these habits of mind when it comes to fiction writing, and in fact, I’m cursed with trying to make fantasy as plausible as possible, including the fantasy of knowing anything about subjects for which I have no practical experience or knowledge. Probably in those cases, readers who do find my attempts laughable, as any expert does when reading something a journalist wrote about their area of expertise.

  14. Edit: The last sentence should read “who do have practical experience or knowledge”…. That’s what I get for not fully reviewing my comment before posting.

    1. I mentally inserted this comma, making the sentence read as I thought you meant it.
      Probably in those cases, readers who do, find my attempts laughable,

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