Writing in my last post about MacGuffins reminded me of another plot principle, known as Chekhov’s Gun. I also remembered at least one occasion when I failed to follow that principle. In that case I didn’t realise what I had done (or hadn’t done) until someone pointed it out at a reading.
The law of Chekhov’s Gun states that if you introduce some object or element into a story that you don’t make use of at the time, then you must make use of it later, or there is no point in it being there at all.
You won’t be surprised to hear that it was the writer Anton Chekhov himself who first stated the principle. In a letter to a friend he said of writing drama:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.
Chekhov follows his own advice in Uncle Vanya where a pistol is introduced early as an apparently irrelevant prop; toward the end of the play Vanya grabs it and tries to use it as a murder weapon.
Chekhov’s Gun is a pithy reminder that everything in a story should have a purpose, and points up the usefulness of slipping in elements that may not become significant until the audience or reader amost forgets they are there.
My example of failing to follow the principle is not classic Chekhov’s Gun in that the element introduced is a piece of information rather than an object, and it is introduced in the middle of the story not near the start; but it needed to be dealt with, and I didn’t quite do so.
The information comes into Head Down, the final story in my collection We Never Had It So Good, which is about growing up in northern England in the late 1950s. In this story my central character, an eleven-year-old boy, is about to discover whether he has passed his eleven-plus examination to enter the local Grammar School. Mr Carrick the headmaster sweeps into class and proudly announces, “Only three boys in the whole of 4A have failed the test. Only three.”
As the result slips are placed face down on everyone’s desk, the boy looks anxiously around his classmates, afraid to learn his fate. He knows already that Willie Mordue, the boy with the glass eye, will be one of the three failures – he is only in 4A to protect him from bullies in the lower stream. Who are the other two?
I do nothing for a few seconds, too weak to move. At last I manage to gulp some air into my lungs and reach out, then hesitate, caught by the sight of Grant Stevens in Row B. He’s further forward than me and I can just see the right side of his face and his head down towards the paper that’s turned print side up on his desk. Grant Stevens is crying. From now on every person in this class will remember Grant Stevens as the lad that cried when he found out he’d failed his eleven-plus.
So now he knows, and we know, that there is just one more failure to come to light. Everywhere around him the boy can see only signs of jubilation. He turns his paper over to find... that he has passed. Sorry to give you that spoiler, but the boy passing his exam is not really the key point of the story, so I persuade myself I haven’t really spoiled it for you.
I read Head Down as part of a series of talks I did at Woodhorn Colliery Museum not long after the book launch. The reading went very well, and I was delighted by the audience reaction. Immediately afterwards, one woman came rushing up the front to meet me, and I smiled, expecting at least a compliment and with luck another book sale. Instead, she said to me in real earnest, “Who was the other boy?”
“The other boy who failed. I was waiting all the way through to find out. I was sure it must be his friend Chiz, but then you said he’d passed as well. So who was the third boy that failed?”
In that moment, I realised that there were three bullets in Chekhov’s Gun, and I’d fired only two. By any other measure the name of the third failure was irrelevant – it made no difference whatsoever to the story. But I had set up an expectation, at least in this woman’s mind (to be fair, no-one else has ever asked me that question), and I had failed to deliver.
Roy Peter Clark (he of the Writing Tools I mentioned in a recent post) has a slightly different take on it from Chekhov, but his point is apposite also. His prescription, which comes from advice given to reporters at the St Petersburg Times is: “Get the name of the dog.”
I hope I haven’t confused you by mixing metaphors here. If anyone picks up Chekhov’s Gun and shoots that dog, I’ll know I have.