Chekhov’s Gun   Leave a comment

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once commented that, if there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be discharged by the third act.   It was with glee that I realized that in the first draft of Neap Tide, there was in fact a gun hanging on the wall that was never again contemplated.

Why glee?  Because I love to stumble on opportunities, even if I was the one who created it, albeit unwittingly.  This gave me the chance to add a scene later where that gun is taken down, admired, found to be fully loaded, and discharged to effect.  The information added by that scene then deepens the reader’s understanding of the townspeople who knew the gun was there but chose to not talk about it.  If I had simply taken the gun down and packed it away in a trunk in the attic, the opportunity to do that would have been lost.

My epiphany, in this case, came from an external comment I saw in a newspaper story.  It had nothing to do with the gun hanging on the wall, which is of course located in a fictional room.

Fiction is, to me, the means to make something that is real even more real, by seizing on telling details and trying to show the whole by bringing these details to life.  Having said that, I will confess that each of my stories – whether scenes in a larger work or stand-alone shorts – is a self contained story that exists within the context of the larger reality.  (That larger reality is the source of much subtext.)

The gun I discovered started out as just a slight detail, one intended to illuminate one aspect of coastal life:  the high-water mark left in the basement of a ‘mature’ building, the handiwork of a hurricane.  Later on in the story a storm – not even a major storm – resulted in tragic loss, but loss of a kind that the community understood and feared.  In my first draft these were treated as unrelated incidents.  The more  I contemplated this, the more I realized that the relationship between the two was not tangential to the story – it was a key element of the story.

‘Chekhov’s Gun’ has been described alternatively as a means of foreshadowing.  This interpretation suggests that the introduction of a seemingly innocent detail can presage more important plot or character developments, items which may suprise the unwary reader but are anticipated by those with sharper eyes.

Whether the term is understood as a writerly tactic to lead the reader onward, or as the description of an unfollowed path, may be left to Chekhov himself to answer.  I am not sure that his is a ghost I wish to summon forth.

Posted November 4, 2011 by JD Rule

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