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.
– Anton Chekhov
This theory of Chekhov’s above, known simply as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently, as I begin the final edits of my current manuscript. That’s partly because I’m the kind of writer who puts everything down in a first draft and then streamlines later – I write every scene, description and piece of dialogue that occurs to me, so editing involves cutting a lot of unnecessary stuff. It’s also partly because my manuscript contains a literal Chekhov’s gun, which has become a great example of a detail that works very hard in my story.
In this case, there is an actual gun that gets mentioned in passing early on. It’s not a prop for the main plot, but it keeps appearing in small ways until, yes, eventually it is fired. But the early mentions aren’t just foreshadowing for the firing; by acquiring the gun, my protagonist makes a discovery that is crucial to the plot, and it becomes something of a symbolic object. The truth is, I never intended it to be very significant in the beginning. There was a rifle, because it made sense for one of my characters to own one, and it enabled the crucial discovery moment I mentioned above. Then it became something awkward; I’d introduced it and didn’t quite know what to do with it any more. I kept having little moments of ‘but wait, she was holding the rifle – what happened to it?’
And that is the point at which you either have to make a detail work or cut it altogether. I made it work by realising that I had to take Chekhov’s advice – my gun needed to go off. In the end, it more than worked, because realising that gave me a great idea for how to end the entire story. But that’s what I believe this quote is really about. It’s not about cutting all your details and description; it’s about making all your details and description do something for the story. On our MA course, we had a tutor who compared stories to racehorses, with every muscle carefully honed to propel that horse forward. Excess fat, distracting baggage, flapping manes – all those things slow the horse down and need to be dealt with.
For someone like me, who tends to over-write things, it’s a useful exercise to pare things down to basics. Part of my editing process now involves going through every chapter, working out what is absolutely necessary and what is not. Which item in the bedroom is the one that really tells you something vital about the character whose room it is? Which line of description includes a casual mention of something that’s going to crop up again later? Those are the ones that stay. Then there are the ones, like my rifle, that are being wasted without me even realising it. With a bit of tidying up and a new importance down the line, they’re suddenly foreshadowing. The rest, though, can probably go.
Now, I don’t really believe in hard rules when it comes to writing, and any advice that includes the words ‘absolutely must’ should be taken with a pinch of salt in my opinion. Sometimes a detail is there merely to help us visualise a scene, and that’s also important. But it’s always worth thinking about what a small thing is or isn’t doing for your story – and, more importantly, what it could be doing instead.