Wednesday 15 June 2016

Chekhov's Gun is a Tyrant

So if you’ve been thinking or reading about story structure for any amount of time now, you’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun: the storytelling rule that Anton Chekhov proposed. It goes: if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act (of a play), then it must be fired in the third act. In other words, he’s saying that every element in the story, from the props to the secondary characters, must have a clear purpose for inclusion.

Chekhov's Gun

We can take a couple of examples to start with. Remember those old fairytales where a cat (or dog, or hero, or whatever) is walking along, and it randomly helps three people? In the version I heard as a kid, the cat helped an ant, a ladder, and a cloud. Further down the story, the evil king would imprison/torture the cat, and who would help the cat escape, but the same three people it had helped earlier. If you cat was really such a helpful fellow, it would be helping all sorts of people all the time. But those wouldn’t be much of a story. The resonance in this story is because the same people mentioned earlier become relevant later.
Another random example is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Multiple times in the book, the characters mention a fire that happened in the outskirts of town, decades ago. At the end of the book, what’s the solution to the last crisis? You guessed it, the fire. We wouldn’t have had that A-ha moment at the end if the fire hadn’t been mentioned earlier.

Kurt Vonnegut explained it very simply in his rules of writing: Every sentence must either reveal character or advance the action. David Mamet said it in his memo: Any scene which does not advance the plot is superfluous.
This is a great rule for keeping your writing pared to the essentials. You want to keep only the relevant, you want to remove the dead ends, you want to keep the story moving. But you know what the problem with this is? Life isn’t like that at all.
Take a simple example: In a noir thriller, the lead character, a detective, gets a call from a girl he used to know back in college. The man she loved then has disappeared, and she can only trust our hero to find him. Now there’s a reason why this scenario immediately catches our attention: There’s an incomplete story implied in the introduction. There was a girl he knew earlier, but that acquaintance did not develop into anything more. Now that old history has a chance to develop into something more. Chances are, somewhere in the story, the writer will hint to either a blossoming romance or a dialogue about what might have been. And more than likely, the crime itself is linked to someone, something, from the detective’s past.
But there must have been dozens of other girls in the same college, some of which, possible, our hero knew better. Besides, there are dozens if not hundreds of cases the detective may have worked on, where he did not know any of the players beforehand. Why then does this particular case become the one we enjoy reading? Because Chekhov’s Gun can also be interpreted as, We Seek Closure. We want stories to make sense, to include the elements that are relevant.
But life isn’t like that, is it? We may fall in love with a dozen girls equally, one by one, before one marries us. We might meet a hundred strangers at a bus stand and never see them again. We might do a hundred different things in a day that lead to no real result. And yet, somehow, we enjoy life as it comes, and even draw meaning from it. There’s no real “end” or conclusion to life’s million threads.
Perhaps this explains why we get addicted to soap operas. There’s no real ending, just a continuous flow of stories, the next beginning before the last one ends.
What does this mean for us as writers of fiction? On one hand, we aim for verisimilitude. That requires capturing the million broken threads and unfinished tasks of real life. On the other hand, we want to present a complete story in our writing: something that satisfies Chekhov and Vonnegut and Mamet, and all the readers who will derive their satisfaction from tying up of threads. It’s a delicate balance, and I don’t have all the answers, either.
So that leaves us the other possible use for broken narrative threads: establishing character. The dozen girls that our hero romances in college serve to establish him as a rake, even if only one of them comes back to haunt him. The fire in Salem’s Lot also established the kind of town it was, even if it wasn’t to be recalled later as a plot point.

And thriller writers have another use for these threads: creating red herrings. If you mention only one single girl in the flashback, and someone is now blackmailing the hero, we all know it’s that girl. But a dozen? We don’t know what to think (and the good writer will make it none of those dozen).

Chekhov’s Gun is a double-edged… er, I mean, double-barrelled gun.

Monday 13 June 2016

The coolness of Jhumri Talaiya

Places are made cool because of the literature and movies around them.

What goes through your mind when you heard about New York? A busy, bustling place, where amazing things happen, where Times Square is, where a million crime stories, a zillion human interest stories, and all sorts of news are to be found. Where Godzilla attacked.

What about Paris? A city of love, romance and chance encounters. Abhishek Bachchan and Preity Zinta dancing in front of the Eiffel tower. Where Writers go to write in peace.

San Francisco? Where Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage protected the world from a crazed madman on Alcatraz. Where Hitchcock movies come to life.

The English countryside? The madwoman in the attic. Bucolic triads of men in boats. The famous five chasing smugglers. Amitabh Bachchan landing in a helicopter to the tune of “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”.

Let’s not even start about Switzerland and Yash Chopra.

All right, all of you who actually live in these places or have visited, stop reading and move on. Nothing for you here. Or maybe there is.

How much of the romance of a place, or of a country, comes from the literature around it? There’s no way you have experienced everything that a city can offer. Your social stratum and your profession severely limits you in any case. And you are unlikely to know about the workings of crime syndicates in any of these places.

But, somehow New York is exciting. It has an edge of mystery. Paris is romantic. The more you’ve heard or read about a place, the stronger your emotions around it.

If you’re addicted to thriller or crime novels, you’ll know that many writers use the city as a background and a “supporting artist” in the plots of their novels. And because the English speaking world is dominated by writers based in the USA and Europe, the majority of thrillers we read are set in New York, Rome, London, Switzerland, Paris,... Over the years, the sense of thrill and excitement that these books impart has rubbed off on the cities themselves. A not-so-prosperous area in New York, say, Harlem (I don’t know if that is still the case, I’m going by the books), still feels glamorous. The spray-painted logos on the walls, the mental images of tin cans kicked by gangs, their metallic clang echoing through streets emptied in the midnight hours,... wow, you can just see that something thrilling is about to happen.

But our mental images of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata? They’re made up from Bollywood movies and “serious” literary fiction. So we’re either imagining Shah Rukh Khan dancing, or else dysfunctional families in isolated bungalows. Yes, there are a few thrillers that evoke the place. Satya, maybe. Or Sacred Games. But these are drowned out by the social-milieu stuff.

It sometimes doesn’t take much to impart that aura to a place. Chetan Bhagat probably did more for the “studious intellectual hangout” image for IITs than generations of actual passouts, through his books. And Ruskin Bond’s work will always make Mussoorie and Landour the place where nostalgic Anglo-Indians remember summer holidays in colonial bungalows.

But that’s not enough. Not if we want to feel “good” about our cities and locales, as readers of Indian fiction. For that matter, someone like Surender Mohan Pathak has done more to make desi locations glamourous than any IWE writer.

More thrillers set in India! More characters from the desi dregs of society! More subversive plots in the alleys of small-town India!

Thursday 9 June 2016

We need a new language

I remember hearing in a lecture a long time ago that English, the language, is very closely tied to Christianity. It isn’t just that so many of the proverbs and phrasing of the language comes from the King James Bible, but also, concepts like good, evil, sin, propriety, and relationships are expressed in English in the framework created by Christianity.

We could probably expand the concept to talk of “the western world and environment” that is served well by English. There was a post on Reddit India recently, where a popular Hindi movie dialogue couldn’t be translated correctly into English without losing the context entirely, just because the value systems were different.

As readers and literary types in India, what do we gain from adoption of English as our language? As it is, because we start off with the extremely limited English vocabulary, we are at a disadvantage. But we also are unable to explain so many concepts of the Indian mindset in the language. The average vocabulary size of the “new Indian fiction”, i.e., the works of Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh and his like, is really small compared to the equivalent kind of popular mass-market fiction in the American or British market.

Let’s not talk of the “literary” writing, say, of Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh. The vocabulary of these writers is probably equivalent to the western writer, but their mass-market reach much more limited - may be, or may be not, because of this same “hard” vocabulary.

What we need is mass-market fiction that creates a rich, deep English, but which is not exactly the same as the western language. Maybe it’s created by inserting Hindi or other language words into the English. Maybe it’s just the Rushdie-type language, utilized to do thrillers or horror fiction. Or maybe we just wait for ten more years, while the New Indian Fiction market matures and the readers are more accepting of a denser language.

It’s not like this hasn’t been done before. Hammett and Chandler created the “street-smart PI” language that is so well established today. Melville created the “Nantucketer”. Dickens created and established his own blend of English. Anime and Manga translators, and recently, Chinese product label makers (is there a different word for them?) are creating a typical pidgin that is instantly recognizable. And our movie makers have created dozens of different lingos that every Hindi moviegoer recognizes: the Christian “Lion” crime-boss language, the Goan fisherman/aunty, the Marwari seth, the transgender… Read Hindi pulp fiction, and you will see these languages used generously in it.

If Indian Fiction, as a genre, is to grow, it needs to develop that custom vocabulary and sentence patterns that reflect the linguistic capabilities of its readers. Many of those readers may be like our famous neighbourhood aunty, but some day or the other, she’s going to have learn to say “basket”!

Monday 6 June 2016

Those Plastic Things

The other day I was in a grocery store buying vegetables. We were supposed to pick up a basket from a pile in the corner, take our pick of vegetables from the crates around the room, and take the basket to the counter, where the owner would weigh each item and finally give us a bill.

The baskets in the corner were almost gone - too many customers using them. An aunty comes up to the counter man, and asks him, “Do you have any more of those… things? Those plastic things?” pointing to the basket in my hand.

Maybe she had a genuine language processing issue. Maybe she’d just started learning English. But more likely (and this is because I’ve seen it in many places around me), she didn’t know that it was called a basket, never bothered to find out, and did not realize that using the precise word would be the most efficient way of expressing her request.

How many of us make the same mistake! There are different words for the same general thing because there are nuances of expression. You’ll see a hundred synonyms for “Said”. There are a dozen words for happiness, as many for sadness and anger. Their meaning differs in degree or connotation or implication. The more you know, the more expressive you get.’s movie section, where they publish the reviews section, is full of comments complaining about this or that reviewer. “He uses such hard words! I couldn’t understand what he was saying.” Whereas, if you actually understand those words, you get a lot more out of the review (duh) than if the reviewer had used the most basic terms to get his point across.

Another example that comes to mind is from that much-forwarded set of 6-word stories written by famous writers. Margaret Atwood’s 6-word story is: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” How much of the impact of that story comes from the first word, “Longed”? It could have been “loved him”, “liked him”,  or “wanted him.” But “Longed” gives that extra flavour to the sentence.

Read Thoreau’s Walden. You’ll see he never just says “trees”, he always specifies the type of tree: oak, pine, cedar. I probably couldn’t recognize these trees if they fell on me, but having those words in the book adds all the richness to the descriptions. Imagine if he’s just said “tall green plants” everywhere, like the neighbourhood aunty.

Every Hindi speaker knows about Gulzar now, his mastery of words, his incomparable sense of rhythm. Try, just try, to pick out a word from his poetry, and substitute another equivalent word in its place. You’ll find it extremely difficult to do so.

Increasing your vocabulary is not just for TOEFL studies, folks. Picking up new words, in any language, English or Hindi or Telugu or whichever, only helps you improve your communication, helps you understand others better.

We all sit in deep wells, trapped inside our bodies and brains. Language is all we have to share our feelings with others. Wouldn’t having more ways to do so, be better?