Writing Excuses 17.3: Chekov’s Surprising Yet Inevitable Inverted Gun
Key points: Chekhov said if there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I, it must be fired in Act III. Which means if you want something surprising yet inevitable later in the book, you need to set it up, make the promise, earlier! Structure, genre, audience, medium all shape the way you put the gun on the mantle. Look at your story holistically, especially during revisions. Do critical analysis of the media you consume, especially when the big reveal fails. Use expectations to create good anticipation and tension.
[Season 17, Episode 3]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Chekov’s Surprising Yet Inevitable Inverted Gun.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Transcriptionist’s note: According to the sources I checked in Google, Chekhov is spelled with an h. So… I’ll spell it that way in the remainder of the transcript.]
[Howard] This episode is about creating the thread which makes surprise inevitable. The title of the episode is an acknowledgement of the fact that most people use Chekhov’s gun backwards. Chekhov was saying if there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I, it must be fired in Act III. I suspect that Chekhov, who was a playwright, was basically conserving budget for the props master. It’s like, “No, we’re not going to spend any money putting a gun on the mantle unless the script calls for a gun to be fired in Act III.” The way we use Chekhov’s gun is the inversion. If a gun must be fired in Act III, it has to be on the mantle in Act I. We want it to be surprising, yet inevitable. That gun on the mantle makes a promise, but the only promise is that the gun matters. Maybe it’s a distraction, maybe it’s not loaded, maybe it’ll misfire, maybe it’ll get used as a club, maybe it’s in front of a secret safe on the wall. What do we do, as writers, to put a gun on the mantle in order to correctly foreshadow, in order to correctly make a promise of something really cool that’s going to happen later in the book?
[Sandra] This is one of the places where… This is like where the rubber hits the road. This is where you have to look at the expectations you’re setting up with the very structure you picked, and the genre that you’ve picked, and the audience that you’re aiming for, and the medium that you’ve chosen… All of those things play into the decision on how do I put a gun on the mantle. Because the answer is very different for an animated show versus a cozy mystery novel versus a picture book. To hail back to the example of a picture book, The Monster at the End of This Book, which we talked about a couple of episodes ago, you have Grover and you have the title… The title, right there, that’s the thing on the mantle. The title promises you at the end of this book, there will be a monster. That has to be delivered upon. That is the perfect way to deliver the promise for a picture book, because your audience is 3 to 5. You really just have to put it right there in front of them and say, “Hey, look. I’ve promised you this.” Then we’re all going to spend the whole book talking about it. Whereas a much more subtle thing, for example, Dan’s I Am Not a Serial Killer series, had a huge telegraphing problem because in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the first book, he had supernatural elements that don’t really come into play in the story until a third or halfway through the book. So he had to figure out how to hang supernatural elements on the mantle right there at the front of the book so that when they showed up later, no one felt betrayed about it.
[Howard] There were places where the bookstores had shelved it with thrillers…
[Howard] Instead of with something that’s in context, “Oh, this is probably supernatural as well.” Yeah, there were folks disappointed at that. What are some other good examples of foreshadowing? Kaela, and then Meg.
[Kaela] So, I love knight books. Knight books for this does such a good job, like, there’s an amazing twist… Spoilers, I’m warning you there’s about to be spoilers. Plug your ears if you’re really invested. But knight books, they have this whole tension and it’s weaved into tension and satisfaction overall. That’s what this is about, satisfaction. But the… You find out, you find these bits and pieces, these clues about the last girl who tried to escape this witch’s house or apartment in this case. The boy is piecing it together, he finds out that she had a plan and he finds what her plan was and then he doesn’t find any more information about it. So he’s like, “Oh, she must have escaped.” There’s like all these little unicorn emblems about it, right? My favorite part is realizing that it seems like a logical solution, she must have escaped because she didn’t write more. But when he runs away, when he does the plan, he runs out and he sees a wild unicorn where he thought… What he thought was the exit, a wild unicorn, and he’s like, “Oh, my goodness.” Then he finds out the witch that has captured him was the girl and that she took the place of the old witch. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness.” It doesn’t… It’s surprising, yet it completely makes sense with the way they had framed things. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness. That was satisfying payoff without feeling like you had tricked me.” I had… It was totally a possibility, I just hadn’t considered it because in the way it was framed by the characters. Very logical reasoning where they’re like, “Oh, it must be that. She escaped.” You’re like, “Oh, yeah, I buy that. That made sense to me.”
[Megan] One of my favorite examples is the comedy film Hot Fuzz. Because I think it has the greatest number of setups and payoffs in any movie that I’ve ever seen.
[Howard] It is so tight.
[Megan] Yeah. Pretty much any line of dialogue or any prop that you see in the first half plays into the big final fight of the movie. It’s about this big cop from London with all of these skills who has to move to a tiny town where really no crime ever happens. It’s this fish out of water story, and just the writing and the editing of the film itself, like how the shots are used and cut together, is so fresh and intriguing that it’s one of my all-time favorites.
[Howard] It is a masterpiece. My own high bar for foreshadowing is the BBC America 2016 Dirk Gently. In the first episode, we get touchstones for… There’s a missing girl, there’s a dog wandering around, there was a terrible murder in this apartment… In fact, we open on this murder scene that just doesn’t make sense, and then a kitten walks across and traces little red footprints in the carpet and then a hand reaches down and scoops up the kitten. For the first half of the episode, we cut and intercut and nothing connects. Except Dirk Gently keeps saying, “I am a holistic detective, I function on this way in which everything is connected.” At the end of that episode, Dirk Gently unzips his bag and pulls out the kitten, and we see in the bag a gorilla mask that we saw on a monitor, and we realize, “Oh, wait. Oh, wait. What’s going on?” Then we roll credits on episode one and we head into episode two. It does this so well. I watched it numerous times and it’s like Hot Fuzz, there is nothing wasted. Everything that is thrown down shows up later and it is connected to other things. For me, it functions kind of like a master class. Because I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to foreshadow by writing things that… Where every word matters and every word is telegraphing or foreshadowing something that is coming. Kaela.
[Kaela] Yes. I would agree with that. I think that one of the keys to getting this done is looking at your story holistically. Which, of course, the time for that is really revisions. I know I’ve mentioned that already, but it’s because it’s so important, like revisions is the time when you are tracing threads throughout your story, and making sure that they’re evident, that they’re there, and they have their payoff. If they’re not there, how do you add them there, how do you build to this kind of full moment where it feels satisfying? Because if you don’t have it running consistently through, it is not satisfying. It’s just like, “Oh. Okay. Deus ex machina.”
[Howard] Yup. Meg.
[Megan] I have a YouTube video to recommend from a YouTuber called Folding Ideas. He did, back in 2016, he did a half-hour dive into the film editing of the 2016 Suicide Squad film. Talking about how their visuals didn’t set up what the story was actually trying to tell. There is one very specific instance that he brings up. There’s one of the characters who has a pink unicorn stuffed animal. That’s just something he has. In his opening title card, where you learn about this character, he has a thing for unicorns. Then, later on, you see him get… This is maybe 20, 30 minutes into the movie, you see him get thrown down in a scene, and the unicorn falls out of his jacket. He picks it up and he puts it back in his jacket. Then, in the final fight, there’s a moment where I think someone throws a knife at him, and he catches it, right in the chest. But then he reaches and he pulls the knife out of his jacket, and it’s in a wad of cash. The unicorn never shows up again. So they did a set up for it, they did a reminder with it, and then the unicorn vanished for the rest of the movie. So…
[Howard] Was the cash supposed to be like stuffed in the unicorn, and the stuffing came out and… We have no way to know that.
[Megan] No. It’s just a big stack of dollar bills in the exact place where he tucked the unicorn in his jacket. This was a film that underwent a lot of re-shoots and a lot of re-editing. So it’s possible it’s a through line that either ended up on the cutting room floor or maybe the cash was supposed to be a joke. It’s just… It’s not quite clear. So this is an example of something that would be done in revisions, where you have your alpha or your beta reader being like, “What? What happened to the unicorn?” You can be like, “Oh, right. Right.” Because [garbled] thousands of words and hundreds of pages, you may not remember everything you’ve already put in your story.
[Howard] Right. Let’s pause for the book of the week. I’ve got this one. It is Deadbeat by Jim Butcher. This is the seventh of the Dresden Files novels. It’s… It is a novel that puts necromancy out in front. The title is three layers of pun. I won’t explain it. But the premise of necromancy as a power in which the older something is, the harder it is to bring back but the more powerful it is when it arrives. The way these things are foreshadowed delivers in a final sequence that is just so delightful. So very, very delightful. Deadbeat by Jim Butcher. I don’t think you need to read the other six Dresden Files novels in order to pick this one up and enjoy it. So you should pick it up and enjoy it.
[Howard] Let’s dive back in now. What are some tools for us for foreshadowing well, for correctly creating the thread that makes the surprise inevitable. How do we create that inevitability?
[Sandra] I think that one of the best tools that a writer could use is critical analysis of the media that you consume. Look at the ways that the show you’re watching or the book you’re reading, how it fails. If you are frustrated by the big reveal, then dig into why that is. Kaela and I were having a little conversation about Frozen. I want her to tell us…
[Howard] Oh, oh, oh. Let’s talk about Frozen. Yup.
[Sandra] Frozen. Yes.
[Kaela] Okay. So, Frozen. What I… Now, Frozen does a lot of good things, so I’m not ragging on the movie here. But my least favorite part of it, and yet also my favorite part too, at that, is the Hans twist subplot, where he is like, “Oh, Anna, if only someone loved you.” Then tries to kill her and take over her country all of a sudden. Now, the reason that gave me whiplash, other than the fact that I had, at the beginning, when I was going to watch the movie, joked, “\Huh. What if he was the bad guy?” Because I always joke about what things that would be bad twists.
[Kaela] And I was right about my joke bad twist. But one of the things that… Like, this is not necessarily a bad idea, it could have leaned into the scenes really well, it could have been a satisfying through line, except that it was almost intentionally deceptive. Which does not create a satisfying, a surprising yet inevitable. It is, “I cheated. Ha ha.” in a story structure. So I think the big moment that I can pin it down to in that movie is when, after Hans and Anna meet, and she walks away, and he looks after her. It’s just the audience watching Hans, Hans by himself in the water. He has no reason to be deceptive. He has no reason to be trying to put on a face. He goes, “Ahh,” all dreamily and smiles after her. We know… We’re supposed to believe that that means, “She’s the perfect person for me to murder later. Ahh.” It’s not at all tonally consistent. It doesn’t match. All those things later… Yup. Megan, yeah.
[Megan] I was just going to hundred percent agree with you on that. Not only that, but there’s a music cue that also indicates this moment is romantic. Because in books, we can be in our character’s head, but in movies, it’s the lighting, music, and sound design that indicate what our character is thinking beyond just what the actor is doing with their face. Every single element of that scene is stacking up to tell us that this is a romantic man with good intentions.
[Kaela] Yeah. He’s a gooey boy. Like a… It shows that evidence. Then… Now, everything in the middle of Frozen could be interpreted that he could be secretly plotting things. But his whole set up, there is no evidence to give us any belief that he is a plotter.
[Howard] So, categorization of this. The apologist might argue that what’s been done here is like a red herring, but what I’m getting from you and what I personally believe is that it wasn’t a red herring, this was the animators, this was the studio, deciding that we need to help Hans keep his secret by lying to the audience. That is not how you make a surprise inevitable, that is how you make a surprise annoying.
[Megan] Because you feel cheated.
[Howard] Yeah. Meg.
[Megan] We have very intelligent audiences, as well, that… Especially if you have someone who really likes to consume everything in their genre. It can be very hard to hide your gun on the mantle. I went to a theater production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Hale Center Theatre Orem with my family a while ago. There’s a bit where Quasimodo is showing Esmeralda around the bell tower. This is a small theater with a circular stage and people sitting around it. There’s not a lot of space for set. But there’s a point where he points up into the rafters and was like, “And that’s where I keep the hot lead where I repair the bells.” I just leaned over to my sister and I’m like, “So that’s Chekhov’s cauldron of hot lead, right?”
[Megan] We had a little bit of a giggle in the theater waiting for it to come back in Act II.
[Kaela] Yeah, but the interesting thing is like I think that people try to subvert… Like, you see people try to subvert expectations because they know that these tricks are in quotation marks tricks of the trade. But in fact that can create… You can use them to create good anticipation instead. Like, when you’re like, “That’s where I keep the hot lead,” and I’m like, “Ooo, I hope the bad guy gets melted with lead.” It actually makes you invested if you’re doing it right. When you’re like, “Hey, I’m not telegraphing the fact that oh, maybe it almost fell on the guy this one time before it officially becomes a thing.” But that it can be… You can use it for tension, you can use it for anticipation. If you’re looking at it right.
[Howard] That’s why I describe the possibility that the gun on the wall has a safe behind it. So that we have this inevitable moment, somebody goes to lift the gun off the mantelpiece. But instead of lifting it, they pull down on it and the panel slides to one side and they open a safe.
[Megan] I think one thing… We want surprise and inevitable. But if you can only hit one, hit inevitable rather than surprising.
[Megan] Because that is going to deliver a more satisfying experience for your reader, even if they guessed this once.
[Howard] We’ll talk about red herrings in our next episode. Predictability is better than abject disappointment.
[Howard] To my mind. I could be wrong. I could be wrong. We’ve got…
[It’s time for homework]
[Howard] I just love talking about this stuff, and we could just keep going, but we’re almost 20 minutes in again.
[Howard] Homework. I think this is…[Megan] Meg.
[Megan] I got this. In your current work in progress, pin down a person, a place, or a thing you threw in for flavor at the beginning of your story, but didn’t plan to use again. Write a scene for them to come back in the final act of your story in an unexpected way.
[Howard] I love it. I love it. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.