by Jason Sheehan (author of A Private Little War and Tales from the Radiation Age)
Chekhov’s Gun and Duncan’s Briefcase
Two observations on the dramatic lives of inanimate objects
Anton Chekhov is having something of a moment.
Thanks to the finale of Breaking Bad, the obsessive recapping of and writing about the finale of Breaking Bad, and (it seems) the near-universal obsession with Breaking Bad, it has been virtually impossible to get through a day without a conversation about Chekhov’s Gun.
If you talked about the machine gun in Walter White’s trunk, you were talking about Chekhov’s Gun. The ricin? Chekhov’s Gun. But it’s so much more than that, too. If you talked about Lydia and her stevia obsession, the photo of Brock and Andrea in the Nazi’s meth dungeon and, most perfectly, the knife block in Skyler’s kitchen in the beautiful, shattering third-to-last episode, you were most assuredly talking about Chekhov’s Gun.
A brief primer for those who, maybe, aren’t familiar with the most famously unbreakable law of writing anything: As stated by Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest short story writers in the history of the form and a man possessed of a truly remarkable beard-and-mustache Van Dyke combo, his immutable rule says: “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.”
If, in your own writing, you do that one thing—if you follow that rule, to the letter and without fail—you will automatically become better then you were before. And I’m not talking a little bit better, but rather better by orders of magnitude. You, too, will be able to grow epic facial hair. Chicks will dig you (or dudes, if that’s your thing). Your advances and royalty statements will grow by leaps and bounds as people talk about how clever, airtight and seamless your writing is.
I have stated before, loudly and publicly, that I do not believe in giving or accepting advice when it comes to writing. We writers are all strange, moody, occasionally gin-soaked creatures who perform a kind of rough magic every day by creating something from nothing—stories from thoughts, from daydreams, from air. We all perform our little tricks differently. We find our inspiration in different places, under wildly varying circumstances. What works for one of us is guaranteed only to work for no one else but us.
Chekhov’s Gun? That’s the one exception. A writer ignores this advice at his or her great peril. Chekhov’s Gun works universally because it is an explanation of something that every reader expects—basically, not to be screwed around with by the storyteller. If the reader is shown a machinegun, a knife, a lovingly described car, an evil twin or a surly wombat named Bitey McGee, said reader has a very real expectation that said gun/knife/car/twin/angry marsupial be used at some point to shoot/stab/drive/creep out/tear the face off one of the poor saps populating your book.
You want a real-world example? Good. I’ve got one.
Because I don’t trust writers when they talk about projects that are going well (and also because I am a massive egotist), I’m going to talk about one of my own stories now and the way that I basically shot myself in the face repeatedly with Mr. Anton Chekhov’s Gun. Consider it a cautionary tale. A handy guide to things to things never to do should you find yourself in the strange position I’ve been in myself these past few months.
As I write this, I am currently up against yet another looming deadline on the serialized novel I’ve been writing for 47North. It’s called Tales From The Radiation Age and is a science fiction story about a gleefully anarchic near-future world full of giant robots, dinosaurs, spies, prostitutes, bar fights and sea monsters. The way it works is, every two weeks a new episodes gets delivered to the Kindles of those who’ve bought it, and each of these episodes furthers the story of my main character, Duncan Archer, and his continuing attempts to not die in some spectacularly explode-y fashion while doing his job as an undercover secret agent, part-time piano player and professional liar.
Because I am (mildly) insane, when I pitched this project I decided to write the thing in the adrenaline-and-Benzedrine spirit of an old-fashioned serial—meaning that I would be frantically scratching out new episodes as the previous ones were being put out into the world. I gave myself very little of a head start. And though I did have a comprehensive outline, character notes, a map, compass, provisions and plenty of whiskey on hand, all of those are long gone now—lost, spent or wasted for various reasons.
I also started with a solid understanding of the Chekhov’s Gun principle in theory, but not, as things turned out, in practice.
At the beginning, I larded my story with a lot of Chekhov’s Guns, and I did so for a good reason: The absolutely paralyzing fear I had in episodes 1 and 2 that, come episode 9 or 10, I would just plain run out of things to talk about. That I might need an extra gun or wombat or fast car laying around just in case someone very badly needed one.
So I put in stolen robot brains, fancy hats and mysterious sheaves of paperwork which contained the true names of many characters using false ones. I gave people secret cell phones (the continued workings of which then had to be explained in a post-apocalyptic landscape) and many hidden knives. I stopped short of including a surly wombat (though did include a very angry ferret at one point), but I basically hung guns from every wall available to me—all in the fear of some future day where I might reach into my bag of tricks when up against a hard deadline and find…nothing.
Needless to say, I did not run out of things to say. My plot, so carefully laid out in early days, actually needed to be trimmed considerably just to fit into the 12 episodes I had available to me and I ended up spending a lot of time thinking hard (read: drinking) about how to tie the dramatic lives of various inanimate objects I’d put out there in episode 2 into the very different story I was telling by episode 10.
It all came together. Mostly. There was a moment where I had some explosives and a whole bunch of horse semen that needed to be dealt with but, thankfully, some of the Chekhov’s Guns I’d left laying around were, you know, actual guns. And the latter effectively dealt with the problems of the former—or at least dealt with those in possession of objects I no longer needed for the telling of my tale.
Strangely, the biggest problem for me has been Duncan’s Briefcase. In a science fictional world, robot brains are a cinch to deal with. But a plain leather briefcase, given unto my irascible protagonist as a joke in the early pages of episode 1 (and, damningly, actually included in the book’s cover illustration), has been like an albatross around his neck ever since.
Sure, the briefcase has been a handy place for Duncan to keep sandwiches and his secret cell phone. He has, for the past god-knows-how-many pages, been schlepping around that mysterious paperwork with him, locked away inside his briefcase, just waiting for the moment when those pages will become vitally important to the conclusion of the plot (“Next week,” I keep promising my editor). But because I’d laughingly made this briefcase an important part of Duncan’s character—a tool that he uses to bluff his way into places where his sort are not generally welcome and, to a certain extent, his good luck charm—he and I have been stuck with the thing ever since.
What does a man do with a briefcase in the middle of a bar fight, for example? Duncan has been in two and, both times, I’ve had to send him scrambling back into the scrum to recover the thing after the action was done. He’s carried it through one car chase, through jumping from a plane, through various evil nights spent drinking, playing the piano and consorting with ladies of low repute.
Right at this very moment, he is (in my head) preparing to mount up on a triceratops for a dramatic dinosaur charge across the Eastern Plains of Colorado in an attempt to rob a train. It’s a good moment, but he is standing there, briefcase in hand, wondering what in the hell he’s supposed to do with this ridiculous thing that he’s already lugged along through so much weirdness.
Duncan hates me right now. For saddling him with this prop. This un-fired gun. I know what’s going to happen with it, of course. I know how important it is going to be. But he doesn’t. And as he stares back at me from the page—a look of undisguised petulance on his face as he threatens to just drop the case in the dust and walk away—all I can offer is this warning.
For those of you writing traditional stories (the sort where you finish the end of it long before the beginning is out in the world), go through your early pages and yank down from the walls all unfired guns. Your story will be the stronger for it.
For any of you out there who’ve chosen, for whatever masochistic reason, to write a piece of serialized fiction, think hard and early and often about the things with which you populate your world. Anton Chekhov was a very smart man. His advice is there for all of us to take or leave.
And just for the record, if you ever think of giving your main character a briefcase? Don’t. A nice courier’s satchel, in distressed leather and with a strong shoulder strap, serves the same purpose. Though somewhat less elegant, it can hold all the same sandwiches and cell phones and mysterious papers without you ever having to worry about what your protagonist is going to do with the damn thing when it comes time for him to jump out of that plane, scramble fast out that window or climb onto the back of that dinosaur and ride.