To become a better author, you need to know when your writing smells, and what it smells of. Have you ever heard of Chekhov’s gun? No, not the one from Star Trek, the writer. Let’s discuss it, because it can make your story reek.
What is it?
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
– Anton Chekhov
The more attention you draw to something, the more important it becomes that it has a function later in the story. If there is a gun hanging on the wall in a room, and the writer draws attention to it, that gun should later be fired.
When you do this wrong, you’ll have drawn attention to something that doesn’t return later. You made a promise that you’re not keeping, which is bad form.
Say you’re writing a scene about a man looking for somebody. You want to add some flavour and write the following:
Jeff walked across the market, looking for Reggie. He browsed some wares, meanwhile casting furtive glances left and right. When he turned a corner, he saw a stall like none he’d seen before. Veils in a hundred colours hung from its rafters and a fog of incense hung inside, somehow remaining stationary inside.
“You like my wares?” a jolly woman said from within the cloud of incense. She waved an arm over an array of pipes, and spices. They were in shapes and colours he had never seen. He was drawn to the stall, but just before he reached it, he was pulled back to the mundane world.
“Jeff,” a voice said. Reggie had snuck up on him.
The stall in the scene above is not flavour. By drawing so much attention to it, and by the way it’s mysterious properties, it’s been set up as something important.
How to fix it
There are two ways: either shoot the gun, or don’t draw attention to it. In the example: you can make the stall an important part of the story, or you can rewrite the scene to downplay the stall. I’ll do the latter here.
Jeff walked across the market, looking for Reggie. He browsed some wares, meanwhile casting furtive glances left and right. When he turned a corner, he was distracted momentarily by a tailor’s stall. Veils in a hundred colours hung from its rafters.
“You like my wares?” a jolly woman said from within a cloud of incense in another stall. The fog somehow remained inside it. She waved an arm over an array of pipes, and spices. They were in unusual shapes and colours. He might as well have a look. He was just holding a long thin pipe, when his quarry found him.
“Jeff,” Reggie’s voice came over his shoulder. Reggie had snuck up on him.
The first thing I did was replaced the “he saw a stall like none he’d seen before”, with something less ominous. Then I changed the one magical stall into two separate ones. Jeff is not as flabbergasted as before, just distracted. Finally, I changed Jeff’s distraction so the emphasis is on Reggie and Jeff, and less on being distracted by a mysterious stall.
You could, of course, go further with this, but at some point you’ll run into white room syndrome, because you’ll have removed all description of the surroundings.
Chekhov’s gun is a smell related to your story structure, and can undermine your ending. Be careful how you navigate between the white room, and superfluous guns.