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.
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.