AMBER LOVE 14-AUG-2012 A few months ago I wrote an adorable comic short story filled with cheesy puns starring two sophisticated spies. It was parody of Steed and Mrs. Peel from the original Avengers of UK fame (there’s a brand new comic series by Mark Waid and Steve Bryant). CAM O’MILE & EARL GREY was just a fun writing exercise.

This began on an average day where I felt like I was losing more of my mind. I tabbed over to Facebook where the dearest Mr. Troy Hickman and I bantered back and forth through comments about these pun-filled spy stories. All Troy has to say is, “Go write it!” and I stop what I’m doing to heed his command. I cranked out a five-page adventure story that is probably awful beyond words but was meant to be fun and downright silly. The evil nemesis is Doctor Lemon, after all.

What this silly story did for me was get me an introduction to Marvel Editor Nicole Boose who gave a thorough critique. She understood the silliness I was going for and likened it to pop culture icons like Scooby Doo, Nancy Drew, and Charlie’s Angels. That was one of the greatest compliments ever! Nicole brought up something about my super spy Cam having a gun. I’m still a little confused by this because spies should have guns, right? Nicole brought up a “rule of writing” I’d never heard of before: Chekhov’s Rule.

CHEKHOV’S GUN:
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” From Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521.’ (wikipedia)

This was a rule I also read in J. Michael Straczynski’s THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SCREENWRITING in chapter 2 on page 32: “Never cheat the audience…If there is a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire that gun by act three, scene one.” JMS continued to interpret Chekhov’s rule pointing out that the inverse must also be true: if you have someone fire a gun later, make sure you show the gun earlier. This is something specifically I find faulty in most Batman cartoons. No matter the situation, the action will be at its height; then out from under his cape viewers are to believe that Batman just pulled out the perfect tool from his utility belt and it’s exactly what will get him out of trouble. I guess Batman’s influence on me is pretty strong because I write that off as “fun” whereas as modern professional writers will simply call that “convenient” or worse, “lazy.”

The “gun” is meant to be applicable to any prop but since I happened to use a gun, the correlation was cut and dry. Don’t show a mailman deliver a package if the package has no bearing on the plot; or if a clue is inside a package, you have to show a mailman delivering it earlier.

Here’s my dilemma: I created a character who is a spy. Among all her gear, she would have various weapons. She doesn’t necessarily use every single tool on every single mission. WRITERS! PLEASE CHIME IN HERE! Do you follow Chekhov’s Rule of the Gun? 

I asked author Sean H. Taylor to give his two cents:

I’m a big fan of Checkov’s Gun, but with certain caveats. First, I prefer the the gun (or whatever “prop” it is) be brought up subtly, almost a literary afterthought rather than a blatant “Oh, look, there’s a gun over on the mantle!” Second, I don’t think it’s necessary in all situations, such as Batman’s utility belt, as you mention. Once you’ve established that Bats has all kind of things prepared in his belt, then you don’t need to list them in order for him to use them later. However, that being said, if Bats is going to take out Killer Croc with a harpoon that happens to be in the corner, then by all means, make sure the harpoon gets mentioned in one of the earlier acts. Don’t save it until just that moment with a sort of “Oh, good thing I suddenly notice a harpoon in the corner — Lucky me!” kind of flourish. That’s just lazy writing. 

In the case of your spy heroine, it wouldn’t hurt to mention earlier (even in a list of items she’s packing as she’s filling up her spy-gear), if a certain item needs to play a major role (i.e. a plot changer) in a future scene. But again, the more subtle the better, I’d say. 

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4 comments on “Chekhov’s Gun – Do we have to follow every rule?”

  1. I think that its good to keep in mind, but I think its funny that it comes up any time someone sees a gun in a script, because really, Chekhov was just using the example of a gun to illustrate the larger point that you shouldn’t introduce story elements if you’re not going to use them. Like, if you’re going to make the point that someone has a gun, you need to go somewhere with that, otherwise having the gun is pointless.

    But he’s talking about the gun as a story element, not an object in and of itself – like, if you’re going to spend story time describing it, or making a note of its presence, then yes, you need to follow up.

    Check out this story, The Husband, by Mr. Chekhov: http://www.online-literature.com/yeats/1173/

    It’s about a cavalry regiment that visits a town after a training exercise. Not one gunshot – but, it’s a cavalry regiment. Presumably, they all have guns – Chekhov just doesn’t make a point of it in the text. If you were going to film it, you’d probably show the cavalrymen armed at least once, maybe when they ride into town; but would you be required to change the final dance scene into a big shootout just so those guns would go off?

    Context is also important. In a story about an ordinary family, or a mundane setting, yes, a gun stands out, and shouldn’t be there without a reason… but Chekhov never wrote spy thrillers, or science fiction, or any genre where guns are commonplace enough to be not such a big dramatic deal.

    So, I guess my point is, yeah, don’t introduce story elements or spend a lot of “screen time” describing things if they’re not going to come up later on – but don’t feel like every single prop or piece of costume in your story needs to serve an immediate function. Some things are just window dressing.

    Thats my take, anyway…

    • I absolutely agree that’s not about “guns” but more like any plot device that will serve as a clue. What’s interesting to me is that Agatha Christie props are very difficult to spot in her stories. They are so subtle that I always miss them. She also hides some of the details. It might say “engraved cigarette case” but not explain the engraving until much later when it’s revealed to be a clue.

  2. Chekhov’s Rule is a good thing to keep in mind, but there are always exceptions. I’ve always had difficulty getting clues or “guns” into the story–I end up with a laundry list of things in the character’s bag or the room and that just pulls the reader out of the flow of the story. I can accept Batman having whatever is needed in that utility belt and if you tell me a spy pulls a gun out of her bag, especially in a first (or origin) story I’m fine with that. If it’s a clue necessary to solving the crime/caper/mystery than yes you need to find a way to work it in well enough in advance that the reader has a shot at putting two and two together, or at least getting to the end and being able to look back and see how everything came to that point. A gun, prop, or object that you introduce and maybe even spend some time having a character look at can turn in to a nice red herring that never gets used at any other point in the story.

  3. I agree with Rich, if you’re going to spend time on it then it needs a follow-up, but I also wouldn’t bat an eye at a spy with a gun. If it’s not a plot point then not much time needs to be spent on it.

    My go-to reference for sneaking in subtle plot points is (of course) JK Rowlling who would sneak things in much like was described with Agatha Christie.

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