The Gun Cabinet

Wall Gun Cabinet (Small)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.

14 Comments on The Gun Cabinet

  1. Good thing to remember! And congrats on selling the story…

  2. “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.”
    I get it about foreshadowing, but what do you mean by guns? Is it like, if they bottle some sort of emotion inside they should snap. For example if some character like Niana(One of my noble preserved characters) was to meet someone who change her life to a way she didn’t like it, would it be good if a gun as in she actually wasn’t nice to someone for once? Or no?

  3. Sam Ker
    really like how Bret Anthony Johnston’s comparison between readers and hikers. That is very well said! Like Jennifer said, good job on getting your story published!

  4. @Abby, good question. I meant guns literally, but just as an example. In your example, if your character bottles emotions, and you show that emotion boiling, seething, describe the noxious gas of hate tickling her throat, then, at some point, that emotion will have to come out. If it doesn’t, the reader feels a little cheated. Why spend all that time describing something unless it has an eventual impact on the story?

  5. I agree with Sam Ker. It is a good analogy. I’m really glad you brought up that point because I had never thought of the details in a story that way.

  6. Amber (Squirrel) Hynes | August 18, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply

    I really like quote, and also agree with Sam Ker and Aurelia D. The whole concept is totally true, and I’ll definatly keep that in mind for the future.

  7. “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.” i very much so agree on this point, because if you do not explain something in precise detail the reader won’t really care much about the one particular detail.

  8. Garrett (xaiver) kelly | August 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply

    showing a gun cabinet and having one go off by the end of the story is great foreshadowing. and by having the guns be a main point being stored in the readers mind it gets them hooked into whats going happen. i probably total missed the point on this but please let me know really enjoyed reading this.

  9. I really like your professor’s analogy about the hike. In my experience, stories with too much unnecessary detail get frustrating after a while because of how much detail there is in comparison to actual story or character development. I think of that situation as digging for treasure. After a few pages or so, those intricate little details become dirt, and you just start shoveling them aside because you want to get to the good stuff.
    But like you said, details are what make a story successful and entertaining. It helps give the reader a clearer mental image and enhances the reading experience. I guess a good sort of rule of thumb to go by is, “If it’s important, use it.” Or something.

  10. Is it basicly saying that when dealing with readers, that it is important to be able to keep there full attencion. Like with the gun cabnit, the reader will be exspecting for one of then to go off, and how or what lead to that moment.
    – Nikia Khalid.

  11. Some fine points here. Kati, love the additional analogy of “digging for treasure.” Good detail is a bit like getting your hands dirty in the hunt for gold. And, in the end, it’s always more satisfying to find something you’ve worked for, rather than simply stumbling upon it. In this way, the right amount of detail (that is, enough to make us appreciate the pay off, but not so much our backs get tired from digging and we pass out from heatstroke before we get deep enough to find the weathered chest) can make the ending much more satisfying. I may have to add that analogy in further teachings of this principle.

  12. I agree with your post Gansky, I feel that if a person spends too much time detailing then it looses the readers focus and it makes them want to just get to the point of what the writer is trying to say instead of reading about them going on and on about one particular thing.

    • Aubrie Vasquez | October 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply

      Yeah, it feels like the writer is getting caught up in the description and leaving you all out on all the fun and then you just end up hating that writer in the end haha. It’s a sense of mocking when a writer does that because it feels like they are suggesting that your under educated or something and never got it the first time when you did. You want the person to get to the point and build suspense not irritation. Honestly though I think that that only works in some cases, for example if the narrator was psychotic or something.

  13. Jonathan Calzada | September 14, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply

    I liked the reader/hiker comparison, it put into detail the actual details of it. (if that makes sense) It’s interesting to think about that type of comparison and have it make sense. Nicley done.

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