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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Chekhov's Gun and Delusional Writing



Chekhov's gun is one of my favourite literary principles. For those who don't know, it's basically the rule that any significant element of a story should be directly relevant to that story. So, if there's an interesting salad fork on the table, that fork had better end up protruding from someone's eye, or being valued at a million dollars on Antiques Roadshow, thus saving the protagonist from want. What it shouldn't do is sit there as a kind of cul de sac of description and attention, and then never appear again. Or even worse, appear repeatedly for no reason at all.

On first reading, this idea might seem a bit extreme. What about all my beautiful sunsets, my complex political realities, or my character creations 'too good' to leave out? Well, to put it simply: nobody cares. If your sole object in describing a sunset is to perfectly capture its crimson glory as it bleeds across the flat plain of the horizon, what you should do is go away and write a poem about it. If your grand vision of a dystopian society is so compelling you can't help but describe it in mind-numbing detail for no reason at all, this is why essays were invented. You get the idea.

This is not to say that there is no place in any story for world-building or beautifully descriptive writing - far from it - but discipline must be maintained in all things. If the primary goal is to tell a story, then that story must be told. If the beauty of the sunset affects the mind-state of your characters, inspiring them to change the way they act or view the world, then by all means pick up a thesaurus and go nuts. If the way your world works directly impacts on the actions or options of your characters, then yes, explain away.

A picture speaks a thousand words, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
If you've written something which does not serve the story, then it's got to be cut. It does not matter in the slightest just how hauntingly beautiful, or incisively intelligent the passage is - it must be excised. By all means put it in your 'spare parts' box for later use, but that's about all it's going to be good for.

It might seem that I'm being a little insistent on this point, but there's a good reason for this. By far the easiest thing to lose sight of, when writing a story, is that the theme or message we're trying to convey, while important, is not the story itself. And while technical skill may be important, it is emphatically not in and of itself the reason why people read us. Look at Dan Brown, for instance. The man can barely put a sentence together, and that just doesn't matter next to the fact that he can cobble together a compelling tale. We're story tellers, with an absolute requirement to effectively and entertainingly tell stories.

There's a practical aspect as well. As an editor, when I see this kind of foolishness in a manuscript I know, deep in my bones, exactly what kind of author I have to deal with. A rank amateur, precious, resistant to advice, and an overall nightmare. If that's the way an editor reacts, you can be certain that publishers and agents will see it the same way. It's not too hard, I think, to extrapolate the likely effect on their decision making when it comes to considering your work for publication.

Any time we find ourselves looking at a piece of writing and wondering whether or not to cut it, we should ask the following. Are we thinking of keeping it because of its quality rather than its relevance? Are we thinking of keeping it because it iterates the stunning depth of our personal vision of the world? Or are we perhaps thinking of keeping it because it's good writing and we think readers will appreciate that for its own sake? None of these are good reasons to keep a piece of writing in a story. They are all aspects of the delusion that the primary goal of storytelling is expression and realisation of the self. It's not - that's what group therapy, poetry and Facebook are for. Pick up Chekhov's gun and obliterate, with extreme prejudice, any such notions and the story elements that go with them. I guarantee you that the end product will be well worth the sacrifice.

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