Friday, September 06, 2019

Writing: Chekhov's Gun

Writers are always talking about the principle of "Chekhov's gun." But how many of us know that he was a practicing physician? At one point, he was quoted as saying, "Medicine is my lawful wife, while literature is my mistress." He was multi-talented, and I certainly don't deny that--even though I'm going to take some exception to the principle he espoused.

He was known as a master of the short story and four of his plays are classics. "Chekhov's gun" is a phrase that's quoted often, but do you really know what it means? It says, in essence, that if a loaded gun is evident in the first part of the story, it should be fired before the story ends. But to expand further, his philosophy was really to remove all extraneous things, whether physical or pertaining to dialogue, in the writing.

When most of us speak of Chekhov's gun, we think in terms of an actual gun. And on more than one occasion, I have introduced a pistol or long gun into the plot of a novel, whether it is fired later or not. But putting aside the reference to firearms and applying his principle to removal of extraneous things or ideas, I take exception. Most of us who write mysteries (whether cozy, romantic, legal, medical, or whatever) have learned that it's a good idea to introduce "red herrings" into the plot, so that the reader is always wondering who the "bad guy" is going to be. And this introduction of false clues goes against the principles that Chekhov espoused.

I certainly don't want to put myself up against one of the geniuses of the writing world, but I'd encourage all the writers who read this blog to think twice before they introduce Chekov's gun into their plot. And when they do, remember that he wasn't talking about just a gun.

What do you think? Good idea, bad idea, or one you never really considered?


Priscilla Bettis said...

If I'm reading a mystery, I EXPECT red herrings, so yeah, there should be some Checkov guns in the first half of the book.

Richard Mabry said...

I agree.

Patricia Bradley said...

We have to have red herrings or the reader will guess who the murderer is way before the end. So in that respect, I disagree with him as well. ;-)

Richard Mabry said...

Yes. We hear lots about Chekhov's gun, but I think he's wrong when he says that, if the writer didn't finish the story, the reader could.