The Case Against Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's Gun is generally regarded as a brilliant principle for writing tight narrative. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. 

He elaborates that if you don't plan to fire your firearm in a subsequent act, then it doesn't belong in your story, and you should remove it entirely. 

The widely accepted interpretation is that nothing should be present in your story unless it's serving some critical narrative purpose. Judicious application of Chekhov's Gun can rid your story of elements that aren't doing anything for you. 

It might well be you're better off without that methodical scene in which a character checks into her hotel room, takes a shower, and goes to sleep for the night. And it's true, if you leave too many loose ends floating around, your final scenes risk leaving the reader feeling dissatisifed.

Generally, the novels I enjoy most adhere (loosely) to the Chekhov's Gun principle. For single-media narratives, it's an important reminder to be aware of what work each scene, paragraph, sentence is performing to keep your story rolling along.

There are problems with Chekhov's Gun even in traditional media, though, particularly where it meets up with Occam's Razor. From time to time, I've found an author adhere so zealously to the gun principle that an entire story unravels into tired predictability.

If your story is so tightly wound that every element serves a single distinct function, the discerning reader can often deduce what that function is. Yawn. So the principle is always best used with a bit of caution.

In transmedia, though, you just might be better off forgetting you ever heard Chekhov's name.

Locate Your Exits

I learned long ago from Uncle Jim that everything in a novel should reveal character, advance plot, or support theme. This is much looser, and it's something I can very nearly agree with.

For transmedia,  I'd add one more item to Uncle Jim's list: Adding color to your world.

Part of the juggling act that is telling a transmedia story involves creating depth and richness. You need to signal that there are more and deeper stories going on in your world than the single narrative at hand -- your world has to seem bigger than your characters. That means introducing elements that provide color and flavor to your transmedia world, even if they won't be immediately relevant to the story you're telling.

But there's another reason to do this in transmedia, too. You need to build in escape routes and back doors, because you never know when you'll need to make a hasty exit. This is particularly the case if you're planning on telling an ongoing narrative.

I wrote two years of Perplex City Sentinels, and in the process left so many guns lying about that you'd think a war would break out by the end, so to speak. Nothing ever came of Crispy Heaven's health violations. We never went anywhere with 78-year-old puzzle design superstar Alan Willow, and the cracks in the Mobius Strip were, indeed, nothing but ordinary wear and tear, never to be spoken of again.


But for every throwaway piece of color we never touched again, there was another that we picked up onto our needles and knit into the fabric of the story weeks or months or years later, because suddenly it solved a problem we didn't see coming, or added a complication that made for a more interesting story. A mayoral election produced  a new political nemesis for Sente Kiteway. A recording mogul became the employer to a sociopathic killer. A name fabricated for a single quote became a double agent working for the police to undermine a secret society.

We never knew what we'd need next, but we knew we could look back on our established canon and be sure we'd find something that would help us out of our latest pickle. We did this so often that it became our team motto: Ita est tamquam haec consulto fecerim. It's like we did it on purpose.

Your takeaway: The multithreaded and sometimes reactive nature of transmedia means that you can't always go back and revise your first act to include a gun if it turns out, now that you're in the third act, that you really needed one. Sprinkle your story with guns, just in case.

This is true of both spiderweb and sequential transmedia. If you establish in the movie that Bob dropped his gun into the river, you can't have him pull it out of his pocket in the comic that immediately follows. It's a curious opposite to narrative structure in a single-medium story. In transmedia, if you don't leave yourself loose ends in case you need them later, the resulting overarching story might actually be weaker.

Continuity can be a real storykiller.

So what do you think? Should we abandon Chekhov and his philosophy on ballistics for transmedia, or can you make a case for keeping him around? Take it away, Machinites.


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