IT SEEMS TO ME THAT when writers gather around a bigger-named exemplar of their type to ask the putative guru for advice that most of what the chelas seek are rules, such as Chekhov’s Gun. That is a dramatic principle, formulated as a rule of writing by Anton Chekhov: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.” This is a relatively simple rule, easy to comprehend, and not complex to follow.
The principle can be — and, I assert, frequently is — abused in the application. Such plain and clear prescriptions are easy to misapply, but I don’t think that the impulse to seek them out is mistaken. Writers who seek to learn and improve their craft as storytellers should seek out and assemble a toolbox of such rules.
I, personally, have recently found myself on the horns of just such a dilemma. My magnum opus — which I call The Baby Troll Chronicles — is a story cycle of urban fantasy novels which falls into three general arcs and takes place over a period of time from the 1830s to the present day. (And, even, it might be rumored, some ways into the future.)
Events in this story cycle, which provide relevance to character and plot development, insight into character development and back story, and demonstrate motivations for actions taken, words said, emotions felt and/or displayed by characters, and so-forth, exist in a tangled skein of plot threads that wend from cusp to cusp, and might be exposited out of order or context. For example: in the current WiP (working title: Discovery), Dolly gets all weepy over a hard-times story Pete tells her about her (Pete’s) father. Dolly’s emotional reaction is to an event which took place the night before — less than twelve hours prior in real time, over six months prior from Dolly’s perspective … but, from my perspective (and that of a potential reader, following the stories in published order), in a whole other book.
Now, the Alpha Reader (Dolly’s Godmother, Jaime Lee Moyer), correctly picks this out as a matter of potential confusion to the reader. The events alluded to are not available in narrative form to the reader and the allusion is murky in the extreme — some spare, tactile sensations, an emotional outcry, and little else.
This is no accident. In writing the scene, I was painfully aware that the alluded-to events could not — more importantly, would not — be elucidated. That I would have to dance around them in order to A) include the allusion in the narrative at hand and 2) not spoil the other story.
Nor is this the first time this has happened. In The High T Shebang, — which is already in print (read: pixels), and therefor fair game, no liable for spoilage — I make mention of Dolly’s Genesis and the death of a character which, in some wise, has a strong, emotional effect on Drummond, as well as the killing of yet another character, in which Dolly was somehow involved, and which is the source of no small amount of trouble all ’round. Any one of which could, if revealed in an untimely manner, end up spoiling not only one novel, but two or three — or even an entire story arc. Sort of like telling a newcomer to NCIS that Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander) is killed at the end of Season Two (“Twilight” — 2:23, 05-24-05).
So. Imagine that, instead of starting with “Yankee White,” NCIS started out with “Dead Man Talking,” or — for the win — “Truth or Consequences,” and the producers had to write their way through all of the seasons with Ziva — the death of Jenny Shepard and all the rest — never once alluding to the very existence of Kate Todd or that she ever had an illicit office romance with the Marine officer detailed to carry the nuclear “football” for President Bush, let alone that it was significant plot point that she did.
That’s the corner I’ve written myself into. Not only that, but it’s one of myriad similar tight spots. And, as the series grows — like the proverbial Topsy — more and more of these callbacks crop up as I see connections from one chain of events to another.
So, I asked myself (and Jaime, too) what the rules or lore or sage advice was to young writers who find themselves on the horns of this particular dilemma. (Yes, I do turn sixty this year, but I have only one published book under my belt, so must consider myself a relative neophyte.) I was (and am), in short, looking for the plot twisty equivalent of Chekov’s Gun.
Seems like it ought to be simple: Don’t over-complicate your plot. Or: if you find yourself being tempted to short-circuit your plot, step back.
So far, no joy. Not finding the rule. Not able to write a new rule.
But I’m slowly trying to work it out. Maybe you’d like to take a crack at it?