Chekhov’s Gun Control

Last week’s assignment in my current online class was to “write about a time your vision changed.” One of the class members submitted a story that I will summarize in bullet points:

  • When I was twelve, my father and I took a trip.
  • We pulled off the interstate to go to McDonalds.
  • At the top of the exit, mere yards from McDonalds, stood a man holding a torn cardboard sign on which were scrawled the words HUNGRY. ANYTHING HELPS.

Let me stop there for a minute. You’re already making predictions, right? There’s a man who needs food. A father and son are getting food. It’s going to be very odd if this doesn’t turn out to be a story about the father and son deciding whether or not to give the hungry man food.

You’ve probably heard of Chekhov’s Gun. Chekhov expressed the idea in several different places and several different ways, but the gist is this: If you mention a loaded gun early in a story, that gun had better go off by the end of the story. In the story in question, the hungry man is Chekhov’s gun. By placing him in the beginning of the story, our writer is telegraphing that this man will figure into the resolution of the story. 

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Fight, Seduction, Negotiation

In last week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, playwright Pete Peterson suggested that every scene of a play should be either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. That sounds like the kind of oversimplification/generalization that couldn’t possibly stand up to scrutiny; indeed, I might add jockeying for position and forming an alliance to the list of available speech acts in dramatic or fictional dialogue. But I do think this rule of thumb is exceedingly helpful for any writer, for at least three reasons:

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