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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When to be clear and direct…and when not to be

In my fiction workshop last week, I received a story in which a character speaks with directness, clarity, and precision, comparing his mother’s parenting style to his wife’s parenting style, much to the chagrin of his wife. It’s a key moment in the story. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least believable. The problem is the directness, the clarity, and the precision.

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

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Writing Hospitably

A while back one of my online writing students asked the following question:

I’m finding that I’m having trouble striking a balance between too much scene-setting (delaying the really important action) and too little scene-setting or detail (so that the reader has difficulty knowing why the main action is important). Do you have any advice on either how to mentally frame things when starting to write so that there’s room for the complete action to unfold, or for how to approach the editing/revising to more clearly see what’s lacking and why?

I love this question because it gets at a core principle of good writing: you are forever balancing some tension (and usually more than one tension at a time). This writer is struggling with the tension between the need to set the scene–both literally, showing the reader where the action is taking place, and figuratively, giving the reader why some context for why this action is happening and why it’s important–and the need to get on with the action.

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The Man Who Planted Trees

My father-in-law died yesterday after a long and courageous fight with cancer. He was a man of remarkable imagination and vision, and his sanguine attitude toward long-term projects is an example to writers and to anyone else who might feel called to bite off more than they can chew. In his honor, here’s a piece I wrote about him a few years ago.

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren’t altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn’t planted in pines and swampy where it wasn’t scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you’ve read more than two or three issues of The Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

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In Which I Shape Young Minds

I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn’t long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

I thought on that one for a minute. Then, in a moment of pedagogical inspiration, I said, “Why don’t you tell us about your hometown, and we’ll tell you whether it’s stereotypical or not.”

“Okay,” my student said. “It’s a farm town in Montana. One stoplight. One high school. One Catholic church. One Protestant.”

I had to hand it to her; things were sounding pretty stereotypical so far. 

“Everybody rides around in muddy pickup trucks,” she said.

I started to sweat. Maybe this girl actually did grow up in a stereotypical Montana town.

“Let’s see…” she continued. “The tallest building in town is the grain elevator.”

I saw smirks on two or three of my students’ faces. Let’s see you talk your way out of this one, the smirks seemed to say. This felt like it was about to get out of hand.

“We do have traffic jams sometimes,” the Montanan said. 

I straightened up a little in my seat. “Yes? Go on…”

“When the train comes through on an auction day, I’ve seen as many as three cattle trucks backed up at the crossing near the sale barn.”

I slouched back down. Somebody snapped their gum and snickered.

“And at Christmas,” my student continued, “everybody goes to the grocery store to sing Christmas carols.” 

I straightened up again. The smirks dropped from every face, and all eyes turned to the Montanan. “Everybody goes to the grocery store to do what?” one of the other students asked. 

“You know, to sing Christmas carols. The whole town goes down to the grocery store, and there’s hot chocolate and hot cider. And we sing Christmas carols. Just like every other small town…Right?”

No, not right. Nobody in the class had ever heard of such a thing.

“Why don’t you tell us some more about your hometown?” I suggested, not gloating at all.

It soon came out that the students in this girl’s hometown often rode their horses to school (this was around 2013, mind you), and that it was the principal’s responsibility to take care of the horses during school hours. The student didn’t seem to have any idea there was anything unusual about this arrangement. 

I find it distasteful when a storyteller becomes the hero of his own story, so I should probably end the story here. Suffice it to say that everyone in my class learned a valuable lesson that day. And while it is true that all my students resisted the urge to stand on their desks and say “O Captain, my Captain,” I suspect it taxed all their reserves of restraint and self-discipline to do so.

Spontaneous Human Combustion–What a Stroke of Luck!

When I was a boy, I read a comic book about which I remember only one scene: the protagonists are being menaced by a bad guy with a gun. They get backed into a corner (literally, if memory serves, not figuratively), and just when it is obvious that there is no way they could possibly escape, the bad guy bursts into flames right before their eyes. One protagonist turns to the other and says, “Spontaneous human combustion: what a stroke of luck!”

This is an extreme case of a storytelling offense known as deus ex machina–literally, the god out of the machinery. The term derives from the Roman theater; as Roman theatergoers’ appetite grew for novelty and plot twists (not to mention mistaken identities and twins separated at birth), the plots of Roman plays grew increasingly complex. In fact, they sometimes grew so convoluted that the playwrights gave up on actually resolving the complications in a narratively believable way. Instead, they would write a scene in which a god would appear and resolve all the characters’ problems with the wave of a wand. That way, everybody could get home at a reasonable hour. The actor playing the god would often be lowered on a rope from machinery installed in the rafters for this purpose. Hence the phrase, the god out of the machinery, deus ex machina.

While many of us believe that there actually is a God who is fully able to reach out of the machinery of the universe to resolve problems of human making–a God who often does just that (and, indeed, who made the machinery)–few of us are interested in stories in which a human writer invents problems which he then resolves by inventing a divine intervention, or a happy coincidence or a timely case of spontaneous human combustion.

The deus ex machina highlights a tension that exists in almost all storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. When we tell stories, we are balancing goals that are often at odds with one another. On the one hand, the storyteller is always trying to depict events that feel true to the way things actually happen in the world God made. On the other hand, the writer has other goals as well: he wants to communicate information that the reader needs to know in order to make sense of the story–information about characters and their relations to one another, information about setting, perhaps information about events that have led up to the events of the story at hand. He wants to create tension, then resolve that tension.* It isn’t always easy to harmonize these goals with the goal of writing stories that feel true to real life.

The deus ex machina is one of the more spectacular failures to harmonize these goals. But there are lots of ways to get this wrong. No doubt you’ve read dialogue in which the characters seem to be talking to the audience rather than to one another. 

Cindy, I’ve been your stepmother for ten years now, and I love you almost as much as I love my natural-born children–Paul, age 20, and Baby Brittany, your half-sister and the apple of your father’s eye. But I don’t think you have ever made me this angry before…except possibly the time you refused to be the flower girl at my wedding to your father.

It is always a problem when the writer’s motives are easier to understand than the characters’ motives. 

A few weeks ago, one of my online students submitted a (non-fiction) story in which two co-workers have a conversation that gives the reader everything she needs to know about the two characters’ relationship, teeing up the surprising gesture that is the climax of the story. The only problem was that the characters’ dialogue was just a little too informative. I told the writer that the dialogue seemed packaged. (I might have said that the dialogue seemed like something written rather than something two people would say to one another in the world God made.)

The writer wrote back,

You’re right that the story is ‘packaged’ in the sense that I chose to combine elements of different conversations and events that happened at different times into a single narrative; I was attempting to use those to establish the nature of the characters’ relationships with each other, to give some context in which to understand the gesture at the end. But the events and conversations described really happened: they really said (more or less) those words.

Let me say two things in this writer’s defense. First, it is the writer’s prerogative to compress events and combine bits of different conversations into a single conversation, as long as he is not making any claims to reportorial accuracy (which this writer wasn’t). And second, “to establish the nature of the characters’ relationships with each other” and “to give some context in which to understand the gesture at the end” are both perfectly legitimate goals.

Having said that, I think it is dangerous for a writer to prioritize any goal over the goal of depicting a scene that feels like something that could happen in the world in which we live and move and have our being. Compressing events and combining conversations are fine as long as as the end result is a scene that feels like real life. Establishing characters’ relationships and providing context are legitimate goals, but if you don’t achieve the goal of writing scenes that could have happened in the world God made, you can’t achieve any other goals in your storytelling.

As Flannery O’Connor said, do whatever you can get away with…but nobody ever got away with much.

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