Setting aside Chekhov’s gun

I love Anton Chekhov. His sense of story rooted in character and culture has long held me spellbound, and I hold him as an unreachable ideal for what the best of short fiction can look like. He also had some terrific writing advice, probably the most famous of which was in favor of necessity in the details:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” Chekhov said in a whole range of ways in letters, essays, and interviews. It’s good advice, but on its face, it’s not very sexy, which is why it’s more well known for the example he gives:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

We call that rule “Chekhov’s Gun.”

But a lot of the time, when we see it, we stop right there. When we encounter a beginning writer who’s never heard the rule, we feed them the line about the rifle. A forcefulness and a conspiratorial giddiness enters our voice, and we tend to emphasize the action that follows: “It must go off.” We are grateful for the permission, and we can’t wait for that gun to go off.

We invite violence into our fiction.

We have good reasons for doing so. As I’ve written before, good fiction depends on conflict, and violence is conflict made manifest in the loudest, most unsettling ways. Violence is a part of the world we write and it is a necessary and important part of great fiction. It’s also an easy and useful means by which to arrest our readers’ attention.

But it’s not the only way, and when we succumb to the temptation of easy violence in fiction, we are ignoring the rest of Chekhov’s advice:

“If [the rifle is] not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

These past couple of years, I had been drafting a violent novel absolutely chock full of guns. I name the guns; I describe their actions, their ammunition, their weight and smell. Some of the characters practically fetishize the guns. That obsession with firearms and violence is necessary, because the story is set during the Reconstruction, that turbulent and bloody aftermath to the US Civil War. And the violence isn’t invented for the sake of a good story — much of the surface narrative of that novel is rooted in various historical events that occurred in the borderlands between Texas, Arkansas, and what was then Indian Territory.

I’ve written before about how I drafted most of the novel and then threw it out because the voice wasn’t right. Last year, I started over and made fast progress, up to a point; over the summer, I took that novel to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and found my direction in the book, and when I came back to my home desk, I made more progress on the book.

And then I stopped.

I was wrestling with how to write a novel about men who glorify and revel in warfare and gunplay without seeming to glorify and revel in that violence myself, and I was beginning, too, to wonder what my book might have to say about a long-ago war when we are beset by war today. I think there are plenty of things to say — it’s why I wrote Hagridden — but I wasn’t sure anymore what this book was saying.

Eventually, I got out of my head found my way back to the story, but before I could start writing again, a sick man went on a self-righteous shooting rampage in my own state of Oregon. I grieved with my students, I shared words at candlelight vigils, and by the time I returned to my novel, I found I no longer had the same interest in writing about self-righteous men exacting their vision for the future through gunfire and terror.

This is, frankly, exactly the reason I should be writing that book. Some of my best work has come from trying to express in fiction the issues I am most interested in and most afraid of in the real world. But I was reaching a saturation point, and I decided I needed to get some distance from the real violence before I could keep writing fictional violence.

And I have since realized that I will not get that distance. I will not enjoy a few months’ reprieve; we cannot even go a few days without mass gun violence and ideological terror being enacted somewhere in our world. As of two days ago, we could not even go a single news-cycle without not one but two mass shootings in America.

As a nation, we said in our earliest chapters that we should have a rifle hanging on our national wall. Lately, we seem to have decided that it absolutely must go off, on practically every page.

And I am exhausted by it.

So I am heeding — and reverse-engineering — the latter part of Chekhov’s advice: I don’t want to write a novel in which a gun goes off, so I am writing a novel now in which I never introduce the gun in the first place.

The book I’m working on still involves a shooting — a single gunshot, a stray bullet, a dead child. Last month, during my NaNoWriMo drafting, I spent a lot of time figuring out who had fired the shot, and why, and how that character felt about it afterward. But yesterday, I decided to cut that character and those pages out of the novel.

The gunshot still happens; the child still dies. But I’m not going to reveal who did it or why. I’m not going to spend any pages wringing hands over motives or prevention. Instead, I am going to follow the grief of the people left in the wake of that moment of gun violence.

I used to write violence in my fiction because we live in a violent world. And I still will write that fiction, because our world is still violent.

But I don’t want the attention to be on the violence. I don’t want to hang a gun on the wall of my writing just for the excuse of firing it. Instead, I’m locking the fictional gun away and writing about that other terrible reality: we are a world of victims, a community of grievers.

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3 thoughts on “Setting aside Chekhov’s gun

  1. However, I love stories that leave you thinking, “But what about the rifle?”

    I’m looking at your final paragraph, and I am thinking to myself, “Sam’s the bloke to do that!”

    I’m going to share with you a passage from a novel I laid aside almost two years ago, and to which I might come back at some time (I’m exhausted, and I’m having a total rest from writing at the moment – I don’t know when this ‘sabbatical’ will end). The novel concerns a young man who can work miracles. It is something he does very sparingly. He gains a following, about which he is not completely happy, but also gains the attention of various… er… agencies… who see his talents as a potential weapon. He has to go into hiding, but before he does, he has the following exchange with a close friend. In the light of current events I think you might appreciate the exchange, although if I were to come back to the draft now, I would probably substitute ‘IS’ for ‘Taleban’. [NB. Part of the reason I laid it aside was that I was attempting it in 3rd person narration, which is a departure for me, and I’m not entirely comfortable/satisfied with the work so far.]

    *

    “I’m not sure I understand it myself, Lisa. Look… what’s the one big question you have always wanted to ask me. You do have one. It’s the same as everyone else’s. What is it? Go ahead and ask me now.”

    “Okay. Okay Jack. If you can work miracles, why don’t you simply make the world right, put an end to all the misery in the world, right all wrongs, stop all wars, defuse terrorist bombs?”

    There was a news magazine on the table in the hall. The cover picture was of a man in Afghan clothes. He looked like everyone’s idea of one of the Taleban. He was holding an automatic rifle, pointing it at a woman and a child who were sitting on the ground. The child seemed terrified. Jack picked up the magazine and gave it to Lisa.

    “If you had the choice, Lisa, who would you rather be – the man with the gun or one of the people on the ground?”

    Lisa shook her head. She couldn’t answer.

    “Do you want to know who I would rather be? The man with the gun. Do you know why?”

    Lisa had no idea. She knew how gentle Jack was. It was not as though he baulked at the idea of war and violence and such. As long as she had known him it had been as though he looked at the bad things in the world as being inevitable. No, not inevitable, just likely. More likely than not. That didn’t mean that they were right, simply that they were understandable because they depended on the actions of human beings, and human beings habitually got things badly wrong. To her Jack seemed to be the kind of person who had compassion for people he saw doing unspeakable, evil things, as though he felt that if he was better than them it was by a much narrower margin than a self-righteous person might suppose. He went on.

    “The people on the ground have no choices. The man with the gun does have choices. He has the opportunity to take a step back from what he is doing. He probably won’t, but he has that choice.”

    1. What a great premise for a book! I hope you do return to it someday — though, of course, I understand why you’ve set it aside.

      I think one of the things I’m looking at in this book I’m writing is that line from the end of this passage, those people on the ground. I think they do have choices — not to change the external outcome of things, but in how they respond to the inevitable. Maybe. We’ll see.

      1. I did think of that, but I decided that wasn’t the point that Jack was making. In fact, you can look at it this way – being a Buddhist, you will anyway! – the man with the gun has exactly the same choices as they do.

        I’m enjoying my sabbatical, a period without pressure. Except for this little, nagging voice in my ear saying, “You used to be a writer.”

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