The Gun On The Wall

Here’s my problem. Chekhov was a pretty important chap in the writing world. I’d like think he knew what he was talking about. And he says, if you put a loaded gun on stage in Act 1, you’d better see it goes off in Act 2.

I love foreshadowing. I love the clever little games great writers play with their readers to make their works richer and to reward those who are really concentrating. There are also problems with disobeying Chekhov’s principle and its opposite or corollary, the surprise ending that comes totally out of the blue.

Let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here.

Chekhov didn’t like the idea of a story in which we note a gun on the wall in Act 1, but then nothing happens to it. He called it an unkept promise.

But we also don’t like a story in which a family with no cause to own a gun and who haven’t mentioned a gun, suddenly and miraculously solve all their problems by pulling a gun from a drawer in the final scene.

I want there to be at least hints about something in the drawer, or about Dad having done something uncharacteristic, or the eldest daughter hanging out with the wrong crowd or something. 

As I mentioned recently though, there’s a problem with clues.  Some people will be reading so closely and paying so much attention, that as soon as they see the gun, they will know how things are going to end up. I often find myself being that sort of reader, and it’s almost as bad as seeing a spoiler.

The other day, watching a TV show (I won’t spoil anything by saying what), I watched a character trip over the rug in hi house. He stopped, straightened it and went about his business, but my brain was saying “I wonder if the actor did that by accident and they kept it in … no, because he wouldn’t have straightened it if it was an accident … and anyway, he’s not a good enough actor to pull that off, it looked staged…”. Sure enough, a few scenes later, the trip-worthy rug was plot-critical, as I’d already decided it would be.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Gun On The Wall

  1. I know what you mean, it’s tough to get the balance right. Clues need to be slipped in so that the reader/viewer notices, but doesn’t notice that they notice. The TV example you give is a very clunky attempt that fails – if you can see the scaffolding of the plot, then it hasn’t been built well enough.

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