Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Checkhov's Gun Rack

This one was a request by a good friend. I'm on a writing group that engages in a weekly exercise wherein one of us will put up a prompt and all of us will write for one hour and then share the results. I've actually gotten some really fun (albeit unpolished) stories from this, and I enjoy both writing and world building on the fly.

Because I only have an hour, I usually won't spend to much time figuring out what I'm going to do. As soon as I have a vague concept (usually related to the prompt), a character with one or two traits (eg. a shy student, a crabby old woman, an outlaw poet), a goal (eg. to be married, to be normal, to protect a colony of monkeys), and an obstacle, I dive in.

And the first thing I do is start putting in detail completely at random.

Alright, not completely at random. If I want to write a funny story, it will be funny detail; same for horror, romance, what have you. Details will be as in-period as I can make them without research if it's a period piece. Things won't be per se infodumped- in part because I'm not attempting coherency yet- but at every juncture I can without stopping the action, I'll drop in something specific. The heroine has five children, two of whom have died. The garden is full of mangoes and cinnamon trees. The love interest worked in a cigar shop until it burned down. The town's main export is gourmet cheese. Umbrellas have become fashionable even on sunny days. It is religiously forbidden for women to wear shoes. Just, you know, whatever. It doesn't need an internal logic or consistency. I'm building on the fly.

In trying to explain this and grasping for terms, I started calling it Chekhov's gun rack. You know some of them have to be fired by the end, but you can get away without shooting all of them. In improv theater terms, it's called "saying yes"- taking every new idea put forward as true and doing whatever you have to not to contradict it.

By the time I've inserted half a dozen to a dozen details (and I've been writing this whole time), patterns will have begun to suggest themselves. Perhaps our heroine, now a crabby older woman, lost those two children in an epidemic that caused people to radically rethink their faith and adopt all sorts of new, troublesome, fundamentalist practices, like women being forbidden from wearing shoes. This offers up a great potential conflict, since she and her love interest can be of different opinions as to whether or not this is a good thing- which in turn gives them something to believe and reasons to believe it (being righteous didn't save his shop from burning down, did it?). It also presents some additional obstacles for my main character (there are jobs she can't safely do and places she can't safely go without shoes- or indeed, perhaps she's been denied the protection of footwear she has some sort of wound or old injury that results in a limp). What I can't consolidate (mangoes, cheese, umbrellas) becomes background detail and ambiance (in this case it means our setting is tropical, linked to broader trade networks, probably industrialized, and relatively prosperous on the global scale), and what I can weave in starts eventually (hopefully) to support itself and look like it was planned from the start. Occasionally, I'm left with something striking but orphaned (I wrote an alien invasion story where I'd stated there was no more coffee anywhere in the world, but left it unsupported as to why or how it was connected), but distracting little bits like that are pretty easy to delete later.

Just as a note- I'll often throw out the first idea I have for connections or extrapolations (in the above example my first impulse was to write the woman as grouchy about how things have changed and her lost freedom, while the man was a true believer, but I think it's actually more charming the other way around, as the heroine then goes from someone who cannot fight against the overwhelming currents of her times to someone who refuses to engage in acts that would actually benefit her, because they run counter to her convictions. It also makes for a more sympathetic love interest. I envision a gentle, sad old man.) The easiest answer is often not the most interesting one.

The process doesn't lend itself to careful world building, but I find I really like the results, which end up as often as not being kind of quirky and unexpected. Honestly, even when I have world-built, I still do some of this, because I find it much easier (and honestly more fun) than trying to start by making a complete and consistent world and extrapolate the details that logically follow from it.

In my experience, life itself is chaotic, and full of silly little things that don't fit neatly. Like a brutal dictator kidnapping a film director to make his personal rubber-suit monster movie, or a large amount of the red food dye you eat being ground up insect shells. It's not always something you could have come up with logically, but it makes the world a more interesting place.


  1. I like Chekov's Armory, myself:

  2. Where would you say the first sentences come from during this process? Are they mostly descriptive, getting the detail in there, or is there some other quality you're angling for with the first paragraph? Do you find you have to revise the opening lines any more or less compared to the rest when you go back to them?

  3. Marshall- I should have known it was on TV tropes. Everything's on TV tropes.

    Lauren- If I can come up with something zingy, that's my first choice, and those require less rewriting in general. If I can show the character doing something that is going to be indicative of their character, or show them interacting with some really neat bit of scenery, that is also excellent. To a certain extent I guess I think of first lines a little bit like movie trailers, if that makes sense? It needs to be indicative of what you're going to get, but whiz-bang exciting enough to hook someone who was just planning to flip to the next page.