For Teachers

Chekhov’s Arsenal – Part 1


Chekhov’s gun is a story element introduced to build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for events that happen later in the story.

I recently presented a workshop that discussed Chekhov’s gun, a writing metaphor coined by 19th Century Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s gun can be a useful tool for thinking about foreshadowing and dramatic tension. It comes in many forms that can be used in different contexts, and can also be placed into a group of similar elements that connect one scene or idea with another. 

The writing advice you’ve most likely heard from Chekhov can be paraphrased as:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act. If the riffle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

To explore how Chekhov’s gun works, let’s imagine a stage that’s set with a rifle on the wall. This setting is the always-visible background to whatever action we see in the foreground.

No matter what the characters do or say in the foreground, this literal gun remains in the background, presenting the possibility that there will be a shooting. The audience doesn’t necessarily know who will use the gun. They may have suspicions, and they may be right, but they may also be surprised. They also don’t know for sure who will be the intended target, or what the outcome will be, but an expectation has been established and the general shape of the upcoming conflict has been defined. We’re interested. We’re drawn in. We’re invested. Without doing anything, the gun hasn’t even done anything…yet!

The physical object on the wall is a classic Chekhov’s gun. But from the scene, we may also learn something about the society in which the story is set. For example, if there are two powerful families involved in a long-established feud, that feud is likely also a kind of Chekhov’s gun. It’s an element that creates a tension in the story and an expectation that that tension should eventually be resolved.

We might also learn something about the characters. For example, one character might have a notorious temper, and that temper is also a Chekhov’s gun that we expect to go off later in the story. In some instances, the relationship between two characters can be a Chekhov’s gun. In some instances, the weather can be a Chekhov’s gun.

A story may have multiple elements that each set up a narrative payoff in a future scene. This Chekhov’s arsenal of story elements may all go off at the same time, or one after another in a series.

In The Maze Runner by James Dashner, a boy named Thomas arrives in the middle of a maze with shifting walls, populated by monsters and insectoid surveillance drones. Thomas and the other boys with him are all suffering from the same kind of oddly selective amnesia. Soon after, a girl arrives with a cryptic note from the creators of the maze. Dashner’s first act assembles a vast collection of Chekhov’s guns: the maze, the monsters, the drones, the amnesia, the girl, the note, the sickness brought on when the boys are touched by the monsters, the cure to the sickness, the visions that accompany the cure, and on and on. There are so many Chekhov’s guns in play that it creates a puzzle in the reader’s mind as to how all of these various elements relate to each other, and how they will lead to a resolution of the plot’s central mystery.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.”

If Chekhov had stopped his advice after just this sentence, we’d already have some very useful advice. Paring down the character set, sharpening the narrative structure, removing unnecessary scenes, and including only descriptions that matter can improve a manuscript immensely.

People talk about Chekhov’s gun, but they tend to ignore the importance of Chekhov’s mantelpiece, and how it has to be swept clean before readers can notice the object hanging on the wall above it. The more important it is for Chekhov’s gun to be noticed, the more important it becomes to clean Chekhov’s mantelpiece.

This isn’t to say that Chekhov advocated sparse minimalism, or that modern authors and playwrights have adopted a minimalist approach in response. Modern theater has some incredibly elaborate stage settings, like the lush opulence of Phantom of the Opera or the detail-packed junkyard of Cats. But even within these, we can find objects of importance that successfully draw a viewer’s attention. In Phantom, the most opulent object in the opera house is a crystal chandelier that crashes to the floor to mark an important moment of transition, while also foreshadowing the theme of light that returns in the candles of the crypt. In Cats, the biggest hunk of trash in the heap is an old tire that serves as a podium for each spotlit character in turn, and then serves as a Victorian-era spaceship in the finale.

Theater and film provide visual examples of Chekhov’s gun, and some writing is similarly visual. In a picture book, story elements may be positioned to put tension and expectation into a page-turn. In a graphic novel, a visual element can be placed in one frame and pop up again later on.

But because text is a non-visual medium, objects in a middle grade or YA novel only exist on a page while they are actively being described. Placing the story element n the back of the reader’s mind is our equivalent of mounting it on a wall behind the action. For these stories, Chekhov’s mantelpiece is inside the reader’s head, and the author’s challenge is to carefully transmit the story elements into the reader’s mind, where they can build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for future events.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [or Philosopher’s] Stone by J.K. Rowling, the physical description of eleven-year-old Harry includes quick details about his slim stature, his eyes, and his glasses, followed by an extended focus on his scar. If the rest of Harry’s description were any more detailed, we might miss the significance of the scar as a Chekhov’s gun, and the hinted importance that it will have to the rest of the story.

“If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act.”

This is something to keep in mind while writing. When working on the first part of a book, an author needs to anticipate all the guns that will be going off later in the book, and start setting them in place. When working on the later parts of a book, an author needs to bring each of those story elements from background to foreground. This process is going to be different for authors who plot in advance and those who write by the seat of their pants, the so-called plotters and pantsers (although the metaphor I’ve come to prefer involves architects and gardeners instead).

For plotters, an initial outline would be incomplete if it didn’t include all necessary setup and payoff for each Chekhov’s gun in a story. For pantsers, elements that are planned to work as Chekhov’s guns may fail to go off when a plot meanders in an unexpected direction, or an element may suddenly be needed that hasn’t been adequately established before.  Either style of writer benefits from the revision process.

Some formats are also more challenging than others. Part of your revision process should be dedicated to making sure that each gun in Chekhov’s arsenal is necessary and that each one is used in a way that creates a satisfying resolution.

The Martian by Andy Weir is told mostly told through the log entries of an astronaut who gets left behind on a mission to Mars. The character doesn’t know what will happen next, which makes it unrealistic for him to include intentional foreshadowing in his writing. He is also much more knowledgeable than the reader about all the things that could go wrong with a space mission, which makes it difficult for the author to drop hints that a reader would pick up on that the character would not. This requires some scenes to be set on Earth, where a Chekhov’s gun can be established that will go off on an entirely different planet. In one sequence, the Martian astronaut’s log entries are interspersed with a description of how a square of fabric was manufactured by one of NASA’s contractors. We know this fabric will be important in a way that the astronaut doesn’t expect, but we don’t yet know how.

“If the rifle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

In The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, much attention is paid to a certain ring in the possession of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Even though Bilbo is an especially long-lived and well-off Hobbit, the ring is singled out as the one item he should leave behind–on a mantelpiece, of all places, as Tolkien was surely aware of Chekhov’s advice. Bilbo even mentions how amazing he finds it that Gandalf, a wizard, is interested in an item Bilbo found in a cave rather than the more impressive-looking magical sword and Elf-crafted armor that Bilbo collected on that same adventure. After such a build-up, and given the title of the book itself, the ring needs to be important to the plot. If it’s not, the reader might feel cheated.

But not everything in the story can be a Chekhov’s gun. How can you tell what is and what isn’t? Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s a subtle bonus for readers who are paying attention, or is meant to be obvious in retrospect or upon a second reading.

Or maybe it’s one of those things that look like Chekhov’s gun but are actually something else…

Next time: The Red Herring, the Deus ex Machina, the McGuffin, the Callback, and the Easter Egg.

Where Do Middle Grade Authors Get Ideas?

When children’s authors go on school visits, one of the first questions we often get is–where do you get your ideas? This question will also sometimes go up in writing classes that I teach at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration and at The Children’s Book Academy. I thought I’d share with The Mixed Up Files, some place where I’ve found inspiration! Feel free to share tips on where you find ideas as well. May the well never run dry for any of us!

Ideas Are Everywhere!
I see the world as generously offering book ideas every day. Even the smallest everyday object can provide inspiration. It’s a state of mind, of pondering and unleashing curiosity.

Hey, that piece of bubble gum that I’m chewing. Hmm, has anyone written a book about the history of gum? The inventor of gum? Is there just one inventor? Or many? What about writing a chapter book about a kid whose ability is bubble blowing? Or a book on how to make your own gum? Or a book of bubble gum techniques? Or what happens to the environment because of the all the gum that gets tossed out in the trash? Or maybe gum provides a character tag—a dad who has recently given up smoking is constantly chewing a stick of gum. Once you have that lens –that anything can be a book–there’s a deluge, a veritable avalanche of ideas.

Write Down Those Ideas
The trick is to write them down the moment you think of them. Otherwise, you’ll be like, um, what was that idea I had last week? That’s why notepads litter my nightstand and are scattered throughout the house. Of course, make sure to transfer those ideas from the notepad to your computer. In our home, little papers get lost (dogs and pets eat them, kids turn them into spitballs and absentminded writers are known to lose track of them).

Be a Snoop
Many of my ideas have come from simply overhearing my children. Here’s an example: when I noticed that my middle schoolers were obsessed with the amount of FB Likes they were getting a few years back, I thought–what about a seventh grader who is social media obsessed, does something she shouldn’t, and then her parents shut down her account and take away her phone? Bingo!

Do Market Research
At the time, I checked to see if there were any middle school books out there focusing on social media obsession—and there weren’t! I wrote it simply by inhaling the atmosphere around me. The book sold quickly and became the Queen of Likes, one of my most popular books for tweens.

Once I get my idea, I always engage in a period of discovery. This first involves market research. My first question is — has this subject been tackled before? If so, how many and for what age groups? If there are books looking at the very same subject for the same group, I ask myself–how will my or narrative stand out from the crowd? What am I offering that’s fresh? If I’m not doing something new, I seek out another idea.

Interview!
For my Ellie May chapter books, I knew I wanted to write about an exuberant second grader who loves to celebrate holidays in her classroom. However, I also knew I didn’t want to pick holidays that had already been heavily featured in other books. For my period of discovery, I asked educators about the holidays that were a big deal for students and yet weren’t truly represented in chapter books. That’s how I came up with Ellie May on Presidents Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day.

Have Fun!
Investigating the variety of ways in which school celebrate holidays offered hours of fruitful discovery. I interviewed teachers as well as visited blogs, vlogs and websites. Writing those books was a blast, and I gained confidence that I was writing about subjects that would be truly appreciated in the classroom.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Hurricane Season with Author Nicole Melleby & a Giveaway!

It’s always exciting to share upcoming releases and hear directly from their authors. Today, we’re visited by middle grade author Nicole Melleby and her debut novel HURRICANE SEASON. “This debut novel—about taking risks and facing danger, about love and art, and about growing up and coming out—will make its way straight into your heart.”

Fig, a sixth grader, wants more than anything to see the world as her father does. The once-renowned pianist, who hasn’t composed a song in years and has unpredictable good and bad days, is something of a mystery to Fig. Though she’s a science and math nerd, she tries taking an art class just to be closer to him, to experience life the way an artist does. But then Fig’s dad shows up at school, disoriented and desperately searching for Fig. Not only has the class not brought Fig closer to understanding him, it has brought social services to their door.

Diving into books about Van Gogh to understand the madness of artists, calling on her best friend for advice, and turning to a new neighbor for support, Fig continues to try everything she can think of to understand her father, to save him from himself, and to find space in her life to discover who she is even as the walls are falling down around her.

Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season is a stunning novel about a girl struggling to be a kid as pressing adult concerns weigh on her. It’s also about taking risks and facing danger, about love and art, and about coming of age and coming out. And more than anything else, it is a story of the healing power of love—and the limits of that power.

Hi Nicole! We’re thrilled you’ve stopped by. Tell me,  how did you begin writing?

When I was eight, I saw the Nickelodeon movie Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed, I loved everything about it, but I especially loved the main character, Harriet, and the way she always carried around a notebook to write things in. I used to beg my parents to buy me marble composition notebooks just like the one Harriet had every time they went to a store that carried them, and I would fill those notebooks up with everything. I started off by taking notes about the people around me much like Harriet did while spying, and from there I started writing stories instead. I’ve been writing stories ever since.

The movie also gave me this quote, which I’ve kept in mind ever since, and speaks to why I keep writing: “You know what? You’re an individual, and that makes people nervous. And it’s going to keep making people nervous for the rest of your life.”

Interesting quote, and an important one for kids to remember. Thanks for sharing it here!

Your main character Fig’s growth is pivotal as readers venture toward the climax of her story. How did you decide to show this internal growth and understanding of her father and their relationship?

I knew from the start I wanted to do two things with Fig and her father’s relationship: I wanted to show that, regardless of his mental illness and limitations because of it, Fig’s dad is a loving, wonderful father. They love each other; the mental illness doesn’t get in the way of that. And I wanted to have a scene where a young daughter comes out to her father and it’s a non-issue. Fig’s dad doesn’t make a big deal about Fig’s sexuality. He accepts it, full stop.

With those things in mind, I knew that Fig’s growth had to center more around her understanding of her father’s mental illness more than their actual relationship, along with the avenues of help available to them, and how to accept the help provided to her. Throughout the novel, Fig finds comfort in learning about Vincent van Gogh, whose story is all too relatable in how it reminds her of her father. While Van Gogh helps Fig understand how serious mental illness is and how important it is to seek help, she also has to learn that her dad is not Van Gogh—mental illness isn’t one size fits all, and Fig and her dad have to learn together how to deal with their own circumstances.

What was the hardest part about writing Finola (Fig)?

For me, getting inside Fig’s head wasn’t hard—I don’t know what it says about me that my natural voice is that of an eleven-year-old. What was hard was making sure I took the time and did the research to do Fig justice. What would school look like for Fig, how ostracized would she feel because of her lack of cellphone and her dad’s limitations? It’s been many many (many) years since I was in sixth grade. What’s different now that I needed to be cognizant of while developing Fig? What would social service visits be like for her and her dad? What responsibilities would the adults around her have in reporting the strange behavior her dad exhibited? What parts of Vincent van Gogh’s life would really resonate with her (and what parts were maybe too mature for the story I’m trying to tell)? How would an eleven-year-old in 2019 react to the flutters in her stomach from a first crush on another girl?

Much differently than I would have in the year 2000, I’m guessing, and it was important to remember that while I was writing. I’m not writing about my childhood—I’m writing about today’s middle grade readers’ experiences.

This is a very good point to keep in mind for any writer reading this.

As the rawness of mental illness is strongly threaded throughout Hurricane Season, what suggestions can you give to educators on how to breach this subject using Fig’s journey?

My first suggestion is always that educators don’t shy away from discussing mental illness. It exists in so many people and families, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or to hide away and whisper quietly about. Books like HURRICANE SEASON and Tae Keller’s THE SCIENCE OF UNBREAKABLE THINGS and Cindy Baldwin’s WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW that show kids dealing with mental illness in their lives in a raw and real way I think is a good way to open up conversations with kids.

I also tried to show that both medications and therapy are useful and sometimes necessary, and I think being able to read about a young character experiencing both helps to put both of those into a context that becomes less scary and unknown.

What do you hope readers gain from reading this book?

I think a lot about the books I read when I was younger, and what characters meant the most to me. Who were the characters that were around when I needed them? Which characters gave me comfort, and why? What do I wish I had been able to read about but didn’t get the chance to growing up that could have been life changing?

With HURRICANE SEASON, I wanted to write a story for readers who needed a character like Fig: someone who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and who is struggling with her love for her father and what his mental illness means for both of them, but is also going through the all too real pains of growing up. I hope that readers find a companion in Fig. I hope they see someone they can relate to, who maybe can be there for them in ways that characters were there for me when I was younger—whether it be a reader struggling with mental illness, or sexuality, or just the beginnings of a first crush or the struggles of sixth grade.

I also hope they gain a love and understanding for Vincent van Gogh!

Can I just say how much I love that you included work from Vincent van Gogh. #love

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing new writers in the constantly evolving publishing world?

With social media right at our fingertips, it’s ridiculously easy to see who sold what book how quickly, who is getting starred review after starred review, who gets to go to the big conferences, who gets to be on the most lists, and so on and so forth. Between that and having Goodreads reviews and Amazon stats a click away, it’s easy to get caught up in your own head about what defines success and whether or not your rejections or disappointments equal failure. Jealousy is human nature, and we’re all going to compare ourselves to others from time to time. The challenge is keeping your head up and focusing on your own path. I think it’s important to just try and remember (which I’ll admit is sometimes easier said than done!) that there are a million different paths in publishing, and most of it is subjective. Give it your all, be resilient, but keep your eyes on your own paper.

Also, protip: When I get a rejection, I sing a silly little children’s song that makes myself feel better. Mostly because by the time I’m done singing it, I’m not taking myself so seriously anymore, and I usually end up giggling.

Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms, worms, worms!

Haha! I’m definitely going to try that!

Care to share what readers can expect from you next?

Yes! You can expect another Algonquin Young Readers middle grade book from me out in 2020—a story about a soap opera loving Catholic school girl with a complicated relationship with her mother and her first crush on a girl.

Fantastic! We’ll be looking for it. Thank you for sharing yourself with our family of readers. All the best to you always, and stop by anytime.

Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. When she’s not writing, she can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea. Find Nicole on Twitter and Hurricane Season here.

 

 

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