“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.” – John Steinbeck
Anyone who gives you quick, hard facts about “how a story ought to be written” is suspect. From your English teacher telling you to get rid of passive voice at all costs, to Chekov dictating how and when you should fire a gun, the Quick Hard Writing Facts™ basically exist in order to be broken.
If you’re not familiar, around the turn of the century, Russian playwright Anton Chekov declared that, “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” And as a general rule of thumb, Chekov wasn’t wrong. Think of Breaking Bad‘s plane crash, and how the imagery was a through line throughout the entire season—before finally firing off in the third act. Imagine how disappointed you’d have been if the show had teased that smoking gun, but it ended up just being a meaningless red herring.
In the age of the internet, we’ve actually become somewhat cultish about Chekov’s convention. With shows like Lost, and fictions like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, fandom’s have felt obliged to obsess over each potential plot point, combing through every single stray detail in search of the figurative smoking gun before it fires off again. Chekov’s Quick Hard Writing Fact™ is not only more alive than ever, it’s even formed its own legion of loyal followers, all of them pointing loaded pistols in every which direction.
In Mike and Tanya Mezhenin’s Ludum Dare entry Where is Your Gun Now, Mr. Chekov?, you solve object puzzles with the paranoid cloud of Chekov’s gun hanging over you. Since, as the rule goes, every narrative detail must be “fired off” in act three, each conversation you have in the beginning of the round includes hints of a murder plot through a specific item in the room. Naturally, even the most innocuous comments like “Oh, I see you’re writing your new play, Mr. Chekov” is enough for the astute playwright to know that this is obvious foreshadowing of his eventual assassination. Foreshadowing becomes synonymous with murder, and you have three tries to decipher the assailant’s warnings and guess the correct murder weapon (which can be anything from a pencil to a prosthetic leg.)
Aside from the hilarity of taking Chekov’s rule a little too seriously, the game provides a lot of perspective on the different conventions it plays with. For one, it cleverly turns the object puzzle genre on its head. Rather than forcing players to navigate a cluttered screen full of random items, Where is Your Gun Now, Mr. Chekov? uses the vague inexactness of words to challenge you. But the game also seems to question our dogmatic following of Chekov’s Quick Hard Writing Rule™ in the process too, which is a trend we’re seeing hints of now in film as well.
With the rise of anti-climactic, or “realistic” style stories like Boyhood, audiences are starting to get exposed to narratives that—if anything—subvert the expectation of Chekov’s rule. Neatly tying up the loose threads you dropped in act one might make for easy to grasp dramatic arcs. But as Boyhood demonstrates, people and places drift in and out of our lives all the time, and its totally outside our controls. Details don’t always mean much, outside of giving context to the chaotic messiness of life. Certainly, loaded guns don’t always fire, and life just isn’t always that neat.
Yet while storytellers might finally be starting to question the validity of Chekov’s Quick Hard Writing Fact™, it still makes for one hell of a paranoid murder mystery object puzzle. So you keep stroking that beard, Mr. Chekov. And I’m sure you’l find your loaded gun eventually.