Chekov’s Neglected Gun

by ToastyKen c/o Flikr

Anton Chekov is the bane of many a theatre arts student. His plays are long, tedious, and famous for having little (apparent) movement in the plot. He relied less on overt conflict and more on what he termed a “theatre of mood,” resulting in little action with tons of subtext. It’s tough to wade through and analyse, but it’s thoroughly brilliant work.

But the thing I remember most of my studies of Chekov is his shotgun. To paraphrase, he urged writers to remove everything irrelevant from a story–if you have a shotgun on the wall in act one, someone better fire it in act three.

It’s a simple concept, and seems quite obvious–why introduce a character or MacGuffin if you don’t intend to use it?–but it’s shocking how often it’s ignored. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but literature, TV and film is rife with examples of neglected firearms. A lot of the time, they show themselves as plot holes and hanging threads–things the author fully intended to resolve, but for some reason didn’t. (I suspect that it sometimes comes with editing–changing a certain scene without realising that the change has repercussions elsewhere.)

I think this is one of the cardinal sins of writing, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes in describing a scene or setting a mood, I’ll introduce elements that I have no intention of revisiting, because mood or description is their only purpose. To an extent, that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope. Adding a brief mention of some exotic fruit that only exists on a single island can create a sense of wonder or alienness…but spend too much time describing it to the reader, and they’ll assume it’s an important plot point.

The big risk, in my opinion, comes with World Building. When you’re building a world for you characters to play in, it’s crucial to have a lot of detail: everything from social customs to geography to how that world works. When a writer does that much work on a story, it’s easy to want to reveal it to the reader–and the more little things you reveal, the more complete your world appears. But there’s a fine line here, as your readers will expect you to follow up on those small details.

Lost was a horrible example of this. It was obvious from the pilot that the writers wanted to instil a sense of mystery about the show, and I’m sure there were things they never intended to disclose. On the one hand, it worked–while it was running, fans had a rabid passion for developing theories explaining what the writers left unexplained, creating a wake of obsessed viewers(myself among them). On the other hand, the finale was a letdown because of all the loose ends–that sense of mystery was created, but it backfired, leaving many viewers frustrated (myself among them).

But it’s not always this simple. There are ways in which leaving that gun on the wall can actually work pretty well. One great example is the film Midnight in Paris, about a writer disillusioned about his present, longing to live in a bygone era. What could have turned out to be a relatively mundane exploration of wistfulness was made a terrific movie with a simple conceit: at midnight, he always finds a car that transports him to 1920s Paris where he can hobnob his literary heroes. The time travel angle is very important to the story, but it’s never explained–it’s hardly acknowledged. Beyond a couple mentions here and there, it’s simply accepted and left there, hanging on the wall.

But it works. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s nothing more than a conceit. The time travel itself doesn’t matter at all of the story, except as a plot device–the story is really about learning to appreciate your present and stop looking backward. It’s a shotgun, but we don’t care that it’s not used because doing so would almost contradict the very theme of the film–or, at the least, it would greatly reduce the impact. And here we come full circle to Chekov–the film uses this conceit not to move the plot forward, but to create a mood that suits the film.

Still, this isn’t an easy thing to pull off. It’s much easier to take that shotgun off the wall, load it, and fire. Or cut it entirely.

What are your favourite (or most frustrating) shotguns? I’d love to hear your comments!

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2 comments on “Chekov’s Neglected Gun

  1. Lost drove me so nuts I quit following it. I couldn’t stand it anymore.

    One of my favorite movies, Clue, is full of plot holes, regardless of which ending you favor. I know some of it was because of the various endings, but the movie is so funny that you just flat-out don’t care. LOL

    • James J Parsons says:

      It’s funny when you can pick out p[lot holes like that, isn’t it? You see them everywhere!
      Clue is a movie I haven’t seen for ages, will have to check it out again. It will be interesting to see in light of this–with a comedy like that, to what extent are plot holes intentional, as a comment on the mystery genre?

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