To me, there is little difference between deliberate, exquisite craftsmanship and art. As an author-engineer, I see creating my stories as a melding of choreography and clockwork. I start by introducing disparate elements and set them on paths so that their collision maximizes the combined emotional effect on the reader. When done properly, the result is like a beautiful machine, nearly silent and invisible to the user while simultaneously enhancing their experience of life.
In this approach to storytelling, I have found that I rely heavily on the Checkov’s Gun trope. Anton Checkov best stated the essence of the idea in one of his correspondences.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on stage if it isn’t going to go off… It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” ~Anton Checkov in a letter to Aleksandr Lazarev circa November 1889.
A Checkov’s Gun is an element that has been foreshadowed to be critical to the resolution of a future conflict, but is seemingly unimportant in the moment. It can be just about anything: a character, an action, a widget or an environmental element. The key is that a Checkov’s Gun is a promise, a wink at the reader, and therefore must be paid off like any other part of the writer-reader contract.
As an example of this kind of setup, let’s take the climactic scene from a hypothetical book. Assume that I’ve written the first 2/3rds of a novel in which my protagonist, Ann, was widowed when her police officer husband was murdered by a serial killer. Through the course of the book, Ann investigated and uncovered the identity of her husband’s killer. However, when the police raided his home, the criminal escapes capture, though evidence is found to confirm his guilt.
I then start the climactic scene by having Ann fill a kettle with water to heat for tea. By that point, I have shown that tea is Ann’s comfort drink. In fact, this is the third time I show her making tea in this way. In so doing, I am signaling the diligent reader that the teapot is a Checkov’s gun. When I have Ann leave the kettle whistling on the stove to go investigate a strange noise she hears coming from her attic, I have made a promise. The conflict will end in Ann’s kitchen with her using that kettle as a weapon to defend herself against the killer. Any other conclusion would be unsatisfying.
A Checkov’s Gun is highly dependent upon delicacy in execution and timing. If the element is too heavily emphasized it can feel trite, and if it is introduced too early the reader may not see the connection made by the foreshadowing. When I employ the Checkov’s Gun trope, I want my reader to figure out the foreshadowing in the moment before I pay off on the promise. In so doing, I use my reader’s expectation and realization to enhance the drama of the moment.Tags: Sequence 05: Tropes and Archetypes