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. 

Let us return to our plot summary:

  • We went through the McDonald’s drive-through.
  • My father ordered three hamburgers and three Cokes.
  • I was confused, because there were only two of us. But I figured my father was unusually hungry and wanted two hamburgers.

You’re an astute reader. The twelve-year-old boy may be mystified, but to you it seems obvious that the father has bought the hamburger for the hungry man. Now that you see the obvious path, you begin to wonder what un-obvious thing is going to happen. Will the hungry man refuse the burger? Ask for fries? Or maybe the father actually will eat the burger and throw the wrapper out the car window as they pass the hungry man. Maybe there’s going to be a fistfight. Let’s find out:

  • We drove back to where the hungry man was standing.
  • My father told me to get out of the car and give the burger to the hungry man.
  • I was apprehensive, but I did it.
  • In my interaction with the hungry man, I realized that I had more in common with him–and with everyone who seems marginalized and invisible–than I thought.

That’s a bit of a letdown, isn’t it? You saw this resolution coming a mile away. We readers are cantankerous. We spend a whole story predicting what’s going to happen, and then we’re mad if we predicted correctly.

But I have good news for our writer. First, the memory itself is perfectly good raw material for a compelling story. The writer learned an important lesson, and the fact that he remembers the episode decades later demonstrates that it makes an impression.

Second, the predictability is easily fixed. As Flannery O’Connor said, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Consider how different this story is if we start at the drive-through. One boy, one father, three hamburgers. Now the reader is as perplexed as the boy. The reader, like the boy, wants to know what’s going to happen next. The reader, like the boy, has no idea. 

This touches on something we talked about in last week’s webinar: when you start telling a story, you are helping your reader to find her bearings. But at the same time, you’re trying to throw your reader off balance. It is imbalance that propels the reader into your story. Beginning writers often overestimate how much information a reader needs in order to engage with a story.

The principle behind Chekhov’s Gun is that every element of a story must contribute to the whole. If you show the reader a gun, the gun has to go off. But you don’t have to show the reader the gun–not at the beginning of the story, anyway. It’s true that in the real-life version of the above story, the father and son drove past the man with the sign before they went to McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean our writer is obliged to mention him early on. All this story needs is a little Chekhov’s Gun control.

Photo by Andrew Herashchenko on Unsplash