Chekhov’s rifle

‘One mustn’t put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’

What Chekhov meant by this excellent piece of advice was that nothing – objects, characters, situations, moods – should be random in our writing. Everything must have a purpose.

So why are you thinking of setting your novel in the recent past?

I considered setting my first novel in 1997. The story was based in a television newsroom and 1997 had been a bumper year for news; a general election with a Labour landslide; the death of Princess Diana (an ENORMOUS news story), and that of Mother Theresa, completely overshadowed, to name but a few. I fondly imagined interweaving my main characters with the news items to great effect, until someone asked me why. Why what? Why 1997 – what had this specific year got to do with my characters?

I couldn’t come up with a sensible answer; I was so taken up with the possibilities for the background story that I forgot the main event. I thought about it for a long, long time, I was so reluctant to let the idea go. But eventually I realised I had no choice; I didn’t have a story to hang 1997 on, so I didn’t pursue it. Though I still might…one day.

But back to Chekhov’s rifle. I’ve just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Despite all the criticism I’ve read about the trilogy, I really enjoyed this first book. A terrific plot, with engaging and interesting characters, though I surely wasn’t supposed to imagine Kenneth Brannagh, in his Wallander role, as Mikael Blomkvist, was I?

Anyway, in the story, Lisbeth Salander uses a taser gun to subdue her antagonist. Afterwards, she slips the weapon into her pocket. Ha, I thought. I bet we see that again later. But we didn’t. Even when the perfect opportunity presented itself towards the end of the novel, it didn’t make another appearance.

Obviously Larsson didn’t read enough Chekhov.

(On reading the complete series, I realise I owe Stieg Larsson an apology. The taser does make another appearance, in the next book.)


6 thoughts on “Chekhov’s rifle

  1. Very good point. I just finished a book on writing that reminded the writer that just because something is interesting, doesn’t mean it should be included. If it doesn’t fuel the story, then it shouldn’t be in there. Sigh. That’s not always easy.

    • Guilty as charged! What I thought were interesting snippets explaining the inner workings of a newsroom were usually greeted with, ‘That’s extraneous, we don’t need to know that, it’s holding us up.’ Can’t win, seemingly…. 🙂

  2. There is such a fine balance between providing enough “scenery” to ground the reader and overdoing it with non-essential and distracting details. I hope I’m getting there….

    • I love the descriptive parts…. but it’s quite testing making them meaningful and significant to the rest of the story. I suppose the colour and pattern of the wallpaper in the kitchen might be influencing my heroine’s mood when she takes a filleting knife to her lover… 🙂

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