Last week I talked a bit about a movie I saw that did a good job of setting things up and bringing them to fruition. While not the main point of my post, it reminded me of a principle Bret Anthony Johnston taught me some time back.
Before he became the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University, he was my professor for Intermediate Fiction Writing at Cal State San Bernardino. One night, he spoke about Chekhov’s gun. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, I’ll sum up. Anton Chekhov once said that if there is a gun over the mantle in Act 1, then it should go off by Act 3. Simply put, it advocates foreshadowing.
This is how I remember Bret Anthony Johnston explaining the idea. If we spend any significant amount of time on any particular detail in our story, the reader picks it up and stores it away in their memory, fully expecting the detail to have some bearing on the ultimate outcome of the story. I’m not sure these were his exact words, but I think I’m close.
“Readers are like hikers on a nature walk, and your story is the woods through which they hike. As they go along, they pay careful attention to the details you’ve put in your story. The height of the grass, the roughness of the bark, the clouds pulled thin like yarn. These details become important to them. But if you spend too much time on them, they become rocks which weigh the reader down. When done with your story, when they’ve ascended to the top of the mountain, they unload their packs and look back at each rock, each stone they’ve collected. Each stone should have a purpose. If not, you’ve wasted the readers time and exhausted their attention.”
If your character keeps a cabinet full of guns, and you spend a significant amount of time detailing the cabinet and the guns it holds, one of them should go off by the end of the story. And if they don’t, maybe you should consider putting a little less polish on the guns. Details are vital to a successful story, but they must be selected carefully. Imagine you’re a play producer. You’ve got a tight budget. You can only include a few props. You want to make sure you choose the props that are going to have the greatest impact on the overall story.
GREAT NEWS: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas has just published my ten-page short story, “An Affair to Forget.” The e-book is available for purchase here for less than a buck! All those with e-readers, enjoy.