For Writers

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.

When Writers Speak: Presentation Tips for Introverts

Like most writers, I’m a pretty introverted person. I am happy pecking away at my keyboard, with only my cat for company, for hours on end. Sometimes, though, I’m invited to speak about my work. You can’t just run away, right? I also do a lot of training for my day job. In fact, I’m on the tail end of six weeks in which I will have presented twelve times. While this is an unusual amount of training in a short period, I have presented hundreds of times, to audiences of up to eight hundred people. It must be easy by now, right?

Nope.

I still get nervous. Every. Single. Time.

I have, however, developed a few tricks to help me out at this point. In solidarity with my fellow introverts, I offer them up for you.

First, a quick pep talk. I actually think that introverts are better presenters than extroverts. Those who love the spotlight can tend to linger there, even if they don’t have a ton of stuff to say. We introverts are not wasting anyone’s time. We say what we need to say, as clearly and succinctly as possible, and then we sit down. We also are always prepared. If I’m standing up in front of an audience, even if I have delivered this exact talk fifty times, I’m still prepping for it. I never wing a presentation. And trust me, I’ve been in the audiences of presenters who are gregarious and unprepared and those who are quiet but well-prepared, and I’d choose the latter every time. An entertaining presentation that lacks substance is like cotton candy—sweet, but in reality nothing but air. Be a carrot—solid, strong, maybe a little boring, but great for helping you see.

Now for the tips:

Preparation

I always think through ahead of time my goal for the presentation. What is it that I want people to learn or understand from what I’m saying? Then I organize my presentation in a way that makes logical sense for the audience. What do they need to understand first, then second? I start my presentation with a roadmap, telling them what I’m going to say. I do this because I heard somewhere that whenever we are being presented with new material, a part of our brain is working to understand the overarching structure of the presentation. If we as presenters tell them ahead of time what we’re going to cover when, that part of the brain can relax and just absorb what we’re saying.

In terms of my own notes, I use bullet points instead of a script, because then it flows a little more naturally for me. If I’m really nervous or it’s a new presentation, I may practice writing out what I want to say a few times, but I still will rely only on the bullet points for the actual presentation.

You might consider using props—pictures, cartoons, or physical objects of some kind. They’re a great way to help you loosen up, and pull the focus off yourself for a little bit. Video and audio can also be great, but I tend to steer away from them myself because I don’t trust myself not to mess them up.

On the day of the presentation, give yourself more time than you think you need to get there. Your stress level will already be at eleven, no need to make it worse with unexpected traffic, a wrong turn, or a goat crossing.

On Site

Once I’m at the location of the talk, my nerves really go into overdrive. My hands shake, I can’t think straight, I get clumsy. The worst.

Here’s what helps: I find a quiet spot (a bathroom stall is fine) and lock myself in. First, I wiggle/dance/jump around or whatever it takes to work out some energy. Then I take a moment of zen—just breathe in and out for a few minutes. There are some great tips on breathing techniques here. Then I do a quick superhero stance.

Once I feel like I’ve gotten myself under control, I walk into the talk’s location. I spend a few minutes in there getting acclimated. Where will I be standing? Is there a microphone? Is the technology all set up and ready to go? Where’s the clock? Can I see it easily from where I’ll be presenting? If not, I slip off my watch and put it somewhere on the podium or table in front of me—that way, I don’t have to be obvious about checking the time partway through. I don’t use my cell phone clock because it’s a little hard to read, and it will go to sleep unless I remember to tell it not to.

As people start filing into the room, I try to chat up a few who seem nice. This will help later, when the audience starts to seem like a scary wall of judgment—see, there’s that guy who just got back from Jamaica! And the lady with the cute dog!

The Talking Part

Eventually, of course, you’re going to have to get up and speak. It’s not easy, friends. But here’s what I do. Stand, walk to the right spot, and take a breath. In. Out. You may feel like you need to start speaking right away or it’ll be super awkward, but it won’t. Nobody will even notice that you took that second to breathe, but it’ll help you gather yourself.

One of my cheater moves is that I always start my talks by complimenting the audience. What a fun and energetic group! You guys are so smart, I can tell already! I love this town/building/room! This is the best podium I’ve ever seen! I do this because I want them to like me, so that when I later mess up, they find it charming instead of annoying. I have no idea if it works, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I always at least get a few smiles, which gives me the courage to go on.

Speak slower and louder than seems appropriate. Anxiety will make you talk fast and quiet, so with effort, you may end up sounding somewhere approaching normal.

Keep an eye on the time. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no audience wants you to talk for longer than they’ve mentally prepared to hear from you.

If you have a question period at the end, my best tip for you if something stumps you is to repeat the question. “Did everyone hear that? He asked…” Even if everyone clearly did hear him, even if people two towns over heard him, restating the question gives a little time for the hamsters in my brain to scurry around trying to find something to say. If that’s still not enough time, I’ll go back to the questioner, to buy myself a little more. “Did I say that correctly?” (Nod thoughtfully.) Finally, if the hamsters are still empty-handed, I’ll say, “That’s a great question. Here are some of the things I know about your question. Has anyone else got thoughts on this?” There are lots of smart people in your audience, many of whom will be happy to show how smart they are. Let them take some of the pressure off.

Finish Strong

I used to finish presentations with a relieved, “So, that’s all I have. Thanks!” Then I took a class on presenting and learned that is not in fact a super effective way to end a presentation. Apparently, you’re supposed to leave your audience with a few takeaways—final words of wisdom, bon mots, or at least a nice picture of a cute bunny. The goal is to end on a high note. I’m still not great at this, but I try.

There you have it, fellow introverts. If you have any questions or tips of your own, leave them in the comments. Thanks for your time and attention! Oh, and one more thing: