Firing Chekov’s Gun

I’m sure that almost everyone reading this will have heard Chekhov’s most famous bit of literary advice – if you show a gun on the mantlepiece in the first act of your play, by the end of the play it’d better be fired. This is a kind of syntactical statement about the language of narrative, just a kind of summary of good story grammar, as it were. This works in reverse too: if Act III needs a gunshot, you need to show the gun in Act I.

This isn’t a story “formula” – it is not clear merely from the presence of the gun how, when, or why it will be used. Alfred Hitchcock must be the exemplar here, in his ability to foreground and then tantalize the artefact – think about the body in Rope: the whole tension of that film is derived from the audience’s expectation of its revelation. If you don’t know about the body, nothing about that film would be entertaining.

We think about this kind of information structure as an efficiency or utility – why show us something that’s not relevant? Why waste your time with something that is not relevant to the themes of the fiction or its story mechanics? There is, of course, much great fiction which is swathed in digressive material, unnecessary for the basic plot, but that material is then usually key to the thematic needs of the fiction. You could think about Tristram Shandy, a novel which is almost entirely digressive, but which is nonetheless fascinating.

In detective fiction of all schools, this efficiency paradigm is treated rather more severely and runs both forward and in reverse. The presence of the body signifies the past-use of a gun (or other implement), and the future presence of a murderer, both of which will be revealed by the criminal denouement. We call this a formula fiction – detectives specifically are called “Whodunnits”, sublimating all possible aspects of the work into this central utility of Chekhov’s gun. There is a body, there is therefore a murder weapon, and a murderer. The detective moves forward in time to find the murderer, and backwards in time to find the murder implement. Both are found simultaneously in the denouement – there the gun is placed back on the mantlepiece.

The basic problem with Whodunnits is that the inexorability and inevitability of the solution strips from it all dramatic tension. In a play, the gun may be fired to close Act 1, to open Act 2, or as the final act on stage before the curtain falls. In Rope, the body might be found at any time – there is no guarantee that Hitchcock will string it out until the final minutes of the film. To inject some life, the writer of Whodunnits will usually reap lives from their tales – murders, rather than murder, spread over the length of the novel. The body becomes again a dramatic entity: the signal, perhaps, of more bodies to come. The best example is probably Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where the living function as a dramatic count-down to the end of the story, when they will all be dead: who will die next, and how? A far more dynamic question than merely motive, means, opportunity.

This then is one cogent possibility of why formula fiction is not as highly regarded by literary critical types. They have taken what is simple efficiency in non-formula fiction, and been content to perfectly execute that core representational mechanic. To get something out of this scenario, your starting point cannot be the use of the gun, as it would be in non-formula criticism. The gun and its use are givens – it is the formula itself, of needing a gun, that becomes the point of interest: what does the genre tell us. Which entirely de-values the close-reading of a specific text, which is the basis of almost all literary critical approaches.

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