Monday, September 10, 2018

Chekhov’s Law

     (No, not that everything was invented in Russia!)

     You’ve seen me discourse about it before:

     “Everything not essential to the story must be ruthlessly cut away. If in Act One you say that a gun hung on the wall, then by Act Two or Act Three at the latest, it must be discharged.” – Anton Chekhov

     Anton Chekhov was principally a writer of short stories and plays. His sense for the constraints that apply to those forms animated his Law. He applied it as ruthlessly as he commanded the rest of us to do, even in his longer works.

     Myself, I prefer Mikhail Bakunin’s two rules for anarchists:
     Rule 1: There are no rules.
     Rule 2: Rule 1 is not binding.

     Nevertheless, I do appreciate the thought behind Chekhov’s Law. It pertains to dramatic unity: the sense that everything the reader has encountered will figure in the ultimate climax of the tale. And in the construction of a short story or novelette, it’s a far, far better thing to abide by it rather than to imagine oneself free of such a requirement.

     But hearken to one of the foremost storytellers of his time, the late, great Roger Zelazny:

     [A]ny story we tell is as much an exercise in omission as inclusion. Our death sentence reflexes normally take care of this, so that we hardly think of the bits of scenery, stray thoughts, passing faces, unimportant physical details we are leaving out.

     Somewhere, sometime early I came to believe in tossing in a bit of gratuitous characterization as I went along. It seemed to add something to the story as a whole if – by means of a few extra sentences – a stock character could be shown to have an existence beyond his walk-on role. I remember doing this with the civil servant Briggs – and showing something of the bureaucracy behind him – in Isle of the Dead. This I suppose to be a corollary of the Hemingway principle – an indication of the presence of things perhaps important in their own right but not essential to the story itself – actually the reverse of cutting an essential item and hoping that its light shines through. But I believe the effect is similar – in making people feel something more than they understand. It works to expand the setting of the entire piece and to provide evidence of the larger reality surrounding the action by giving the reader a momentary, possibly even subliminal, feeling that there is something more there.

     [“The Parts That Are Only Glimpsed,” in Unicorn Variations]

     Today this matter of “giving the reader a feeling that there is something more there” is pursued mainly by crafting interminable series of novels that feature a gaggle of characters the writer can’t seem to stop writing about. You know, like the Onteora Canon.

     So we have two great writers, separated by many years, on opposite sides of a critical “rule.” One tells us to abide by it; the other says it can be broken to good effect. Where, then, is Truth?

     I’d say it's here, in Uber-Rule Zero:

Carry yourself with enough brass,
And you can get away with anything.

     Note that this rule is far wider of application than Chekhov’s Law.

     I’ve been dancing around the edges of Uber-Rule Zero ever since I started writing fiction. I’ve played with implausibilities of many kinds. I’ve used themes that nearly never appear in contemporary fiction written for a general audience. I’ve contrived plots to which Rube Goldberg would say “Aw, c’mon!” I’ve crafted characters that will strain any reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief: immortal supermen, great geniuses, priests of great wisdom and benevolence, and politicians with consciences to which they actually pay attention. And I’ve done my best to act as if it’s utterly natural, “all in a day’s work.”

     Because the one and only true requirement of fiction is that the reader buy it and derive entertainment from it. That requires that the writer maintain a seamless pretense of auctorial nonchalance, as if his decisions are so swift and unstressed that he need say nothing about them...except for the story, of course.

     A caveat about the above: It’s not a prescription for the novice fictioneer to discard all the wise precepts successful writers have set down for him. Craftsmanship matters. So does a keen sense for the way people really act and speak. A coherent plot requires respect for the motivations of your characters. And of course, you must have a story to tell.

     Still, once you’ve mastered a certain degree of craftsmanship and have learned enough about people to be able to construct plausible stories about them, there’s a sense of liberation about it all. After all, fiction writing, as Lawrence Block has told us, is about “telling lies for fun and profit.” It’s very much like that greatest of all characterological assets for real – i.e., non-fictional – people, sincerity: if you can fake that, you can get away with anything. Really!

1 comment:

ÆtherCzar said...

I've come to appreciate what I like to think of as my corollary to Chekhov's Law. In writing a series, you plant several guns on the wall early in any particular story and discharge most - but not all - before the end. A few you save for the next installment of the series. Knowing that a gun may not fire at all - yet - makes it all the more surprising when it actually does fire.