Beauty of the Unfired Gun

Posted by on October 14, 2013

The Silent Rifle as a 3rd Gravitating Body

“Dangling like this from his leg, his upside-down perspective made him giddy. If this were to be his last moment he would die happy, but it would not. Instead, he’d soon be singing karaoke with a group of Korean tourists. But first, the roller coaster.”
– Christina Gressianu, opening lines of an unwritten novel

Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev dated November 1, 1889, in which he said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Tragically, this casual advice became the sacred and unbreakable rule of scriptwriting known as “Checkhov’s Gun” in which every element in a story must be necessary and irreplaceable.

Obey the rule of Checkhov’s Gun and your stories will be predictable to all but the youngest of children.

Movies are predictable, TV shows are predictable and Advertising is predictable because some fool decided Checkhov was a messenger sent from God.

No, let us be fair to Checkhov: his advice was given in 1889 when less than 1 percent of the public had ever read a novel or seen a play. Motion pictures were an inventor’s experiment in a laboratory. Television wasn’t even a fantasy. His audience was, in effect, young children.

Would Checkhov offer the same advice today? Let me assure you he would not.

Surprise and delight are strangled by the cruel hands of Predictability.

If you will write an interesting story, wallpaper the room with guns that are never used and never explained. An unfired gun is a curious distraction, a potential disaster or delight that hovers beautiful like a hummingbird just out of view.

I use “gun” only as the metaphor for a literary device, just as Checkhov did. Can an oversized bottle of champagne be a silent rifle, a hovering gun hanging beautifully on the wall?

Of course it can.

One of my favorite passages in literature flagrantly violates the rule of Checkhov’s Gun. It is an inexplicable paragraph inserted into the middle of Cryptonomicon, an extraordinary adventure/mystery novel written by Neal Stephenson. The gun on the wall is a bowl of breakfast cereal.

The cereal, the milk, the eating of the cereal, indeed breakfast itself is utterly unnecessary in the story of Cryptonomicon. But there it is:

“World-class cereal-eating is a dance of fine compromises. The giant heaping bowl of sodden cereal, awash in milk, is the mark of the novice. Ideally one wants the bone-dry cereal nuggets and the cryogenic milk to enter the mouth with minimal contact and for the entire reaction between them to take place in the mouth. The best thing is to work in small increments, putting only a small amount of Cap’n Crunch in your bowl at a time and eating it all up before it becomes a pit of loathsome slime, which, in the case of Cap’n Crunch, takes about thirty seconds… He pours the milk with one hand while jamming the spoon in with the other, not wanting to waste a single moment of the magical, golden time when cold milk and Cap’n Crunch are together but have not yet begun to pollute each other’s essential natures.”

Checkhov, I believe, would approve.

Welcome, Anton, to 2013.

Roy H. Williams

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