Friday, September 11, 2015

Use It or Lose It... Keeping Deleting Scenes/Ideas

Chekhov's Gun...


There's an old trope that applies to theater and to writing.  It is credited to Anton Chekhov, author/playwright.  In a letter to a friend in 1889 he said, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."  Since then, the phrase "Chekhov's Gun" has become associated with the idea of not introducing something 'interesting' or 'irrelevant' into a piece, whether it be a stage play or a story, that is not actually poignant to the story.  If you put a gun into a scene, make sure someone uses it before the story is finished.  Don't just leave it lying there gathering dust.  Why?  If you were doing a story involving a killer like Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers, before anyone knew they were unkillable, and they were closing in on the hero/heroine in the room where the gun is in plain sight you'd have the person use it, right?  You wouldn't have them grab a curtain to try and keep the killer at bay with Chintz fabric... unless you were doing a very strange comedy perhaps.

In any case, the idea of not introducing elements or ideas into your story and then not going anywhere with them is a big "No-no".  It's all right to leave a few dangling threads unfinished in a story, provided you make it clear to the reader that there will be sequels involving the characters or villain.  The easiest way this can be achieved is by letting the ending be ambiguous or open-ended.  Or one can make it quite clear that the villain or one of their allies decide that things are not over and that they are clearly planning to come after the heroes at a later date. 

But what if the 'gun' on the table is an idea or a character you've introduced early on in the story and then do very little or nothing with later in the tale?  This is not to say that background characters are not needed.  Those folks are always useful as a plot device, even if it's just to let one of the characters confide or share some internal turmoil to them, so the audience knows about it.  Suddenly, that background character has played a key point in the story.  But what if there was no scene like that?  What purpose did that background character serve?  Why were they there in the first place?  Now that person is "Chekhov's Gun".  Do you keep him/her or...



I bring this up, because recently while working on "The Door" I was winding up with a couple of characters who where turning into Chekhov's Gun.  I had plans for them, big ones.  In fact they were to play major roles in the final confrontation, but in the meantime I was doing very little with them. I'd given them impressive introductions, but then wound up leaving them on the table.  When it occurred to me how much further I'd gotten into the story with little or no further appearances by them I was shocked.  How could this have happened?  I needed these people for the final confrontation, so I couldn't just drop them from the story.  Or could I?  Were they truly necessary?  Couldn't I still create a dramatic final battle without them and go in a different direction?

Once again I'd come to that infamous crossroads. 

  
I could take the story in several different directions at this point.  It had evolved and new dimensions had been added to it that had not occurred to me before.  The number of possibilities was almost too much to take in.  I could lose those characters completely and continue or I could go back and add new scenes with them adding elements of menace and suspicion.  I could also just make a few references to them and then bring them in towards the end, but that idea did not appeal to me.  I am one of those who hates having a cavalry appear out of nowhere at the last second without a good explanation as to how they wound up showing up on the first place.  Or I could go ahead and drop them from the story thus simplifying my life.

That idea sounded tempting.  All I would have to do was place my hands on the keyboard and eliminate them with a few strokes of my fingers.  


But I didn't.  They were my 'gun on the table' and I'd introduced them for a reason.  Future stories relied on their being in this story and fulfilling the original purpose I'd intended for them.  So I kept them, but I didn't just leave them on that table.  Oh no, my friends.  I decided to make them more interesting and sinister.  A gun on a table could be loaded or empty.  I chose to slowly make it clear that this gun had a purpose.  So I added some new elements to that table setting.


Now my purpose was more clear to the reader.  These people were more than background props.  They had a purpose, one that could be for good or evil.  Which is the answer?  You'll have to wait until the book is finished.  But know, I recognized a shortcoming in my story and weighed the options for how to deal with it.  Keep your readers in mind when you write.  Think of how the story is playing out from their point of view.  Play fair with them, give them the clues or hints of where this might be going, but not too much.  Keep a few surprises and twists up your sleeve, but remember that some of those elements can be introduced early on.  You just don't necessarily reveal everything about them until the right moment.

As for me, work on the "The Door" continues.  I know what I'm doing with my 'gun' and now I'm running with it.  So until next time, take care and keep writing.