Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hiding Chekov's Gun

“Chekov’s Gun” is a writing device named for the master playwright, Anton Chekov, who once said if a writer puts a gun in the first act, someone better shoot it in the second. There are, of course, arguments as to what exactly he is indicating, some believing he means, “don’t go into inane details that don’t affect the story later,” some saying it means “don’t foreshadow something and never talk about it again.” Or, like any saying, it could be one of the multitudes personal interpretations. For my point right now, it is not about what he means, but the best way to go inserting Chekov’s gun into a story without broadcasting that that’s what it is.

In a story, the author often wishes to foreshadow major events, yet he does not want it to be completely predictable. He does not want to tell the audience a character has a gun because then they'll know she is obligated to fire it. But if that gun appears without mention, they can feel tricked.

One of Crime and Punishment's  greatest criticisms is when a man attempts to finally attack the woman he is obsessed with and she pulls a gun on him. Readers wondered why she had the gun in the first place? How she could have predicted it happening right then? They felt that it was a writer’s convenience, led by the author’s ability to just give her a gun rather than find another way for her to escape him.

This happens commonly enough. Something extraordinary is going to happen in the novel—murder, great escape, coincidence—something that ordinary people don’t usually contend with, and it is contingent on the character having some object or doing something that enables the story to continue with ease.

Hence why hiding Chekov’s Gun can be imperative. If the author wants to establish that a character would have a gun, yet not announce that he is going to shoot someone, he needs to be subtle about it. He has to underplay the importance of the foreshadowing, hiding the fact that it is foreshadowing, yet being unforgettable enough that the reader remembers the item.

I have four suggestions for an author to hide a very specific detail into a story. Though it can be anything, really, I will use an actual gun as an example being it is not an ordinary object and will draw attention to itself.

1. Hiding it in humor.

One of the key elements in hiding something that will be important latter is hiding why the author is talking about it at all. Though very much criticized among the editing world, authors will often include lines, moments, or even scenes that are merely just there for a laugh and do nothing for the point. Any time in which the reader finds something humorous, he recognizes this fact and will not think too hard on the moment, understanding that the ultimate reason for its being was for the entertainment and probably nothing else. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to introduce the something else.

If the author forms a joke at the same time of the "Gun's" introduction, the reader will remember it, but dismiss it as unimportant.

For example, instead of describing the gun as a being a mounted shotgun on the wall, the author would have the crotchety old grandfather tell a traveling salesman to get off his property before he shoots him with it, to which the grandson replies, “That thing still works?”

Of course, in this example, you’ll recognize there is more than just humor to hide the importance of the gun. There is the establishing of the character’s relationships, the grandfather’s personality, the grandson’s opinion of him, and, mostly, it is a bit of a stereo type in which an old man would have a gun to run off a salesman, so the reader would be more inclined to believe that the gun is in its natural environment than something superimposed by the author for future events.

2. Hiding it amongst junk

A more common and easier way to hide the gun would be to describe it along with a good deal of other unimportant items that seem to relate. Placing a hunting rifle in a den filled with animal heads would not be unusual, and the author describing it could just easily be saying, “Look at this place of death.” Describing the gun as a form of decoration, going into great detail about a lot of the different items hanging from the wall, or placing it in a situation it would be expected to be there are all ways of concealing the writer’s true motive. Of course, though easiest to insert into a story without needing to change or add anything, this is also one of the least foolproof ways, being that it is not always what you are describing, but the way you are describing it.

A good example would be, “John walked into the room and stared. The walls were filled with every item known to man. The picture frames seemed to be pushing each other off. Landscapes, posters, medals, plaques, and any other item known to man was hanging thinly. The fireplace mantle was covered with glasses and trophies, a hanging shotgun mounted below the antlers jutting out from the wall.”

Giving John an opinion explained why the author was describing it. He was amazed at all the junk, so therefore he’d be attentive to it. Putting the shotgun as not the only description in its sentence made its importance diminished.

One can also merely do this by giving him more than one of the item in question, stating that he had all kinds of different guns. Because having one gun makes it important, the more he has, the less rare it is, and the less of a big deal. And the house could just as easily be modestly furnished and this technique would still work, one would just have to pay attention to the little details. However, if the author is describing an everyday modern house, perfectly clean and modestly decorated, a gun may be out of place no matter how nonchalant the character plays it up as.

3. Hiding it behind a Magoffin

This is very similar to hiding it behind junk, except in explaining a lot of things in detail, the author explains another object in much more detail.

An object that looks important, but isn’t, is dubbed a Magoffin, a common term used by Alfred Hitchcock. The use of a Magoffin has many abilities in drawing attention away from what the author doesn’t want the readers to note, and it is a useful device in a good number of situations. Magoffins are also often criticized because people don’t like being tricked, and they feel unsatisfied when nothing comes of this “important” moment.

But, when using a Magoffin in terms of Chekov’s gun, the author is essentially hiding the important object behind a trivial object, making the latter seem much more important than it was, leaving the other in obscurity.

For example, “John could not stop staring at the face of the clock. It’s time had only dots instead of numbers, the hands moving about in a way that seemed too slow to be a second. He watched it without even realizing the absorption it held him in, his face gaping in a horrified, awed manner. Nothing told of death the way that clock did. Not the actual gun sitting on the mantle, not his elderly grandfather who glowered at him from the corner. There was something about that machine that frightened him terribly.”

4. Hiding it in an intimate moment

This one is probably the best choice for writing on the grounds that it kills two birds with one stone. It is also using the same idea as the Magoffin, being that one is hiding the point behind something more important, the only difference being that what it is hiding behind, actually is significant. If able, the author can choose to describe the gun for the first time by having it revolve around a pivotal point. With the obvious point of the scene being that the couple kissed for the first time, or the characters are finally told the father is cheating, or whatever the main idea of the scene is, the reader doesn’t very much think to pay attention to descriptive details.

For example, “John and Jenny stared up at his father’s shotgun mounted over the fireplace in silence, neither daring to speak. Jenny looked at the man, wondering what he was thinking. Without meaning to, he glanced over and met her gaze. She smiled at him, and he turned away. She did the same, but now lacing her hand with his. He held tight.”

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