Reversing Chekhov’s Gun – Why you can’t introduce new information in Act III

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

There is a well-worn narrative principle that often does the rounds in writer’s circles. You would have seen it on Twitter or quoted in blogs and books on writing. Chekhov, the Russian playwright and master of the modern short story, is credited with saying “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The principle is often invoked to caution writers against irrelevant details – if it has no impact on the plot, remove it. It is sage advice, but it has a counterpart that is often overlooked – a reversal of the idiom that I would like to phrase as:

If a rifle is going to be fired in the third act, in the first act it absolutely must be hanging on the wall. 

gun

This kind of philosophy harkens back to my school debating days (sigh. remember those? good times.) As the Third Opposition Speaker (which sounds like a key councillor role in a fictional dystopia, but is not), you couldn’t bring up new information – it wasn’t fair to raise new arguments or introduce new concepts that weren’t accessible to the other team for response (and rebuttal).

It’s the same with stories. If you have something major happen in your Third Act, you must introduce it – explicitly or through foreshadowing and hinting – in the First or Second Acts.

Introducing new characters (or other plot devices) too late in the piece is disingenuous. The reader enters the Third Act expecting that everything that is to transpire is a natural progression (likely or unlikely) from the components that have already been built and developed in earlier chapters. Bringing something new in feels like a cheat.

The most common transgression of ‘reverse Chekhov’s gun’ is the much maligned ‘Deus ex Machina’ (which sounds like an awesome futuristic sci fi, but is not (although 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’ deserves a mention…)).

As Wikipedia so eloquently elaborates, Deus ex Machina (literally, God in the Machine) is “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” The internet is full of examples.

But, more subtle transgressions are where minor characters or plot devices that make brief appearances in earlier chapters or Acts, suddenly and inexplicably become crucial elements that are central for tying up the loose ends of Act III.

If you find your story falling into the latter category, fear not! There is a solution (and it is simple):

Go back and add some foreshadowing and hinting in earlier chapters/acts. 

That junior intern that has a whole two lines of overlooked dialogue in that scene jammed into the middle of chapter four? The one that will end up saving the day with her personal rocket launcher project that isn’t even mentioned in the story? Go back and beef up her role. Hint at her ingenuity. Give us a glimpse of that awesome rocket launcher. Let her reappear throughout the story, maybe at the pinch points, or points of high tension. Keep her simmering in the back of our minds, so that her reappearance will be welcome and logical (even if it is a little surprising).

 

What about you? Have you introduced a Deus ex Machina in your WIP or are you committing a transgression against the reverse Chekhov’s gun? Offload your guilt in the comments… 🙂

 

Image courtesy of Don Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons
Reversing Chekhov’s Gun – Why you can’t introduce new information in Act III

Books = Stories about stuff happening

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Books are a lot of things, but mostly they are stories about stuff that happens. They are not monologues or dialogues, long transcripts of people just talking. They are not detailed descriptions of static environments, lovingly crafted words about what things look like or how they smell. (Not that these things don’t have their place).

No, books are all about the action – movement, activity, change, consequences.

 

THE FIVE Ws

In crafting a book, it is the 5Ws that separate out that stuff that is happening in your book from the stuff that is happening in other books:

* What is the stuff that is happening? Is it an alien invasion, a falling in love, a fight to the death?

* Who is the stuff happening to? Is it a small and isolated island community, a thirteen year old boy, a nun on the run?

* Where is the stuff happening? In the middle of the Andaman ocean, a backwater town, a distant moon colony?

* Why is the stuff happening? Because of a stray meteor hitting earth, the arrival of a new face, the unexpected discovery and firing of a gamma ray?

These first four Ws can inject a great sense of character to your novel, tag it with its own unique personality. But, it is the fifth W – the When does this stuff happen? – that is the most crucial and that provides us with the framework of the Three Act Structure.


THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

The Three Act Structure is built around pivotal story moments – all points of the story where important stuff happens.

In the First Act, there is:

* The sympathetic stuff that happens: This is the introduction to your protagonist. They are doing something that a) gives the reader both a sense of who they are and the world they live in and b) instils in the reader a sense of sympathy for the protagonist – something that will keep them cheering for your story’s main character, even if they don’t particularly like or relate to the character.

For more on this ‘stuff’ see my blog post on “The only two things your protagonist needs to be”.

* The call to action stuff that happens: This is part of the story where something changes the protagonist or the world they inhabit, something that is of such magnitude that it calls to the protagonist to get involved.

* The resistance stuff that happens: Despite your protagonist’s call to action, there is a resistance to engage. This could be because of fear, uncertainty, apathy or ignorance (or a multitude of other reasons). In their effort to resist the call, the protagonist does a lot of stuff to avoid getting involved.

At the juncture of the First and Second Acts is the First Plot Point – a major point of significant stuff happening. This is where, despite your protagonist’s best efforts to avoid personally engaging with the inciting incident, something happens to spur them into action. A bigger fear trumps the earlier one, a mentor provides assurances and generates confidence, the stuff happens to someone close to the protagonist, making the challenge personal, or the protagonist has an ‘a-ha’ moment and finally sees the truth and severity of the situation.

The Second Act is divided into two parts of stuff happening.

Part One is about stuff happening to the protagonist. This is basically where the protagonist is the weak punching bag for the plot – it just hammers them with stuff that happens – events and actions and conflicts and explosions – and the protagonist is like a piece of driftwood in the ocean, just trying to stay afloat and survive.

Part Two is about stuff happening because of the protagonist. Your main character is in control and pulling the strings – the plot is now the character’s slave and the hunter has become the hunted. Stuff happens because the protagonist says so – the wall explodes because they set the TNT, the aliens flee because the protagonist is chasing them with a sword of fire, the girl is swooning because the thirteen year old boy is putting on the moves, and the moon mafia is gearing up for a fight because the nun on the run is kicking some serious ass.

Part One and Two are separated by the Midpoint – another major point of significant stuff happening. So major, that the protagonist inevitably and seamlessly shifts from punching bag to Bruce Lee.

For more about crafting a solid Midpoint, check out my blog post, “Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and Write your Midpoint”

The juncture of the Second and Third Acts is marked by the Second Plot Point – the final major point of significant stuff happening. For me the Second Plot Point is a composite of two significant moments – the Darkest Night of the Soul and the Glimmer of Hope. In Part Two of the Second Act, the protagonist is killing it – they are on fire and clearly destined for success – until the Darkest Night of the Soul. Some major stuff happens to seriously put a dampener of the hero’s quest, to crush it so low that it seems all is lost. But then some other major stuff happens – the community’s outcast finishes his alien-destroying weapon, the boy discovers the girl’s favourite story, the nun runs into the mafia-boss’ mother-in-law – and once again, there is hope that the hero with triumph.

The Third Act is one big stuff-happening fest. It’s hell for leather, as lots of stuff happens – driven by the protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters, the conflict and tension, the hopes and dreams, the insatiable pull towards the climax – until it all culminates in one big showdown (major stuff happening here) – which the protagonist either wins (comedy) or loses (tragedy).

IN SUMMARY

So:

In the First Act, stuff just happens (and not necessarily to the protagonist).

In the First Part of the Second Act, stuff happens to the protagonist.

In the Second Part of the Second Act, the protagonist makes stuff happen.

In the Third Act, all the stuff happens.

 

 

(Featured Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Books = Stories about stuff happening