Thursday, July 19, 2018

Make Sure Chekhov's Gun Is Actually Loaded (Trimming The Fat in Your Story)

If you've ever read a book or watched a movie where your perspective lingered just a little too long on that gun hanging over the bar early on, then you've felt that little tightening of the skin between your shoulder blades. That feeling is because you then you understand what Chekhov's Gun is. In short, it's when something seemingly insignificant is introduced early in a story (someone mentions the owner keeps a Magnum under the counter, there's a lingering camera shot of a creepy book on a shelf, etc.) that will become important later on.

Because, as Chekhov himself asked, if the gun never goes off then why are you wasting our time making us look at it?

The bigger the gun, the more important this question becomes.

Trim The Fat

Every aspect of a story is there in service to that story. Got a scene where your lead is having coffee with her girlfriend? Then that scene should have dialogue that sets up plot points, actions that reveal important aspects of character, or at the very least it should introduce additional members of the cast. Otherwise all you're doing is faffing about, wasting your audience's time and risking the interest you've oh-so-carefully cultivated.

As an example, I'll walk you through a story that didn't keep things nice and tight. The horror film Nails.

You have now seen everything you need to of this film.
So, Nails opens up with a little girl in the hospital being seen to by a gigantic orderly. He's trimming her nails, and saving them in a little envelope. A little creepy, but it's shot so that he seems sweet, if a little odd. We fast forward to our protagonist (blonde personal trainer whose husband is a coach) being hit by a car and put in the hospital. She wakes up to a concerned child and husband, unable to speak, and confined to her bed. She might make some kind of recovery, but she's partially paralyzed, and a lot of stuff is broken.

Then, to make matters worse, her room is haunted.

We hear weird stuff, and catch glimpses of a ghost that resembles the orderly we saw earlier... except, you know, all deadified. Protagonist is next-to-hysterical, and though no one believes her, closed-circuit cameras are installed in her room. This settles her for a bit, and she talks to the hospital shrink. He lets drop that a man did commit suicide by hanging himself in her room's closet. This sets off a whirlwind of investigation montages, and our bed-bound blonde discovers that the orderly who killed himself was a giant of a man referred to by the staff as Nails, for his bizarre habit of saving the clipped toe and fingernails from children he cared for. It was made clear that everyone thought he was harmless, despite the fact that he'd come to the hospital himself as a teenager, raving and clawing himself practically down to the bone. He got better, and when he did, he was given a job at the facility that had healed him.

Then dead children started turning up. Nails fell under scrutiny, and his suicide was seen as an admission of guilt.

Our protagonist brings this up to the psychiatrist, who gets super-shifty about the event. She tries to tell her husband, but starts getting the feeling that he's cheating on her with one of the college co-eds on his team while she's in the hospital. And, of course, Nails is getting bolder, and hurting her more and more. This culminates in Nails finally going on a rampage, killing the co-ed, our protagonist's husband, several staff members, chasing our protagonist and her daughter through the hospital, until he finally kills our protagonist.

That's all fairly straightforward... but there was so much time wasted on pointless side plots that never pay off.

For instance, the whole thing about Nails' brutal self-harm and his intense psychotherapy regimen. We get a few, brief glimpses of it... but that's it. We never find out what happened before he came to the hospital, what was wrong with him, and why it suddenly stopped. It doesn't tie into what his ghost might want, or why it's picking now to suddenly get active. We spend way too much time with the psychiatrist hemming and hawing about Nails, setting up the possibility that the shrink was actually the one killing the children and using Nails as a fall guy, because that goes nowhere, too. We even find out that our protagonist was, in fact, the little girl Nails was taking care of in the opening scene, but absolutely nothing is done with that connection. She didn't rat him out to the cops, and he's not seeking revenge on her. She didn't know he was innocent but kept silent. She didn't even see him die and repress the memory. Hell, we never even confirm that her husband is cheating on her! All it would have taken was a single slip of the tongue, and a shot of the car his co-ed athlete drove to close the circuit on her injury, and make it seem that the hit-and-run was actually the mistress trying to take her out so she could steal her husband.

But no. All of these things are just mentioned, and then dropped like a dead salmon on the kitchen floor.

All told, these dead-end scenes waste between 20 and 40 minutes of our time. That is a lot of dead space for a film of this length. It's space that could have been used to decide what was actually going on, and to genuinely raise the stakes and tension (as well as providing some much-needed structure). For example, is Nails a secret child-killer rising from the dead to finish what he started with the last victim who got away? Was he a wronged man whose spirit was re-awakened by the proximity of the man who framed him, and he's trying to reach out to our protagonist to get her to help him? Does Nails feel betrayed by her, and thus his spirit is trying to get vengeance? Was his torture and pain as a teenager symptomatic of an unquiet spirit that needed to get closure? Is her husband cheating on her, or is it all in her head?

We don't know. And, to make matters worse, we waste so much time on all of these un-fired guns that we forget there's a story being told, and it all sort of devolves into mush. Generic, unsatisfying, and overall confusing.

If You Aren't Using It, Get Rid of It

A writer's mind might be a hoarder's paradise, but when it comes to the story on the page you need to make sure that if you don't need it that you aren't wasting your reader's time with it. If you managed to hook them, and they're turning pages, then make sure you don't squander their good will. Get to the point, keep it tight, and make sure the safety is off on any plot pistols you walk past.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helps some folks out there who's been wondering how to quit shooting blanks in their stories. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become one of my patrons. There's free stuff in it for you, in addition to my undying gratitude.

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