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An Elegant Solution

January 22, 2010

There’s a lot that goes into a good story – be it short or novel-length.  The most important of these, undoubtedly, are interesting characters.  But a very close second is the plot.

The thing that makes plot important is conflict, which at it’s most basic meaning is that there is a separation between a character’s desired state and his or her actual state.  Plot is what happens as a result – what a characters does to either move closer to or away from his or her desired state.  A good plot, of course, is more complex than this.

I try to do a lot of prep work before writing a story to help me with these two elements of the story, the characters and the plot.  Good character studies will help me understand the motivations and (sometimes competing) desires of the characters.  Good plot development fills in all the other holes, and provides valuable information on everything else that might come into play in the course of the story.

It’s at this prep work stage that I try to start thinking about all the “Chekhov’s Guns” that might be necessary to use in the course of the tale.  The phrase “Chekhov’s Gun” refers to a literary device that is explained in a quote by Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.”  The idea being that something with dramatic potential that appears early in the story in an innocuous context ought to be used at a later point in the story at a moment of dramatic tension.

The obvious corollary to this rule of Chekhov’s gun would be: “If a gun is fired in the last act, it ought to be shown in the first act.”  In other words, if the gun comes out of nowhere at the end of the story, that’s dramatically unsatisfying.  But if we (the audience) already know about the existence of the gun because it was revealed earlier, we accept, and even expect, that it will be fired in the final act as a natural consequence of its very existence.  In other words, the use of Chekhov’s Gun is a form of foreshadowing.

Often, of course, Chekhov’s gun is not a literal gun at all.  But it is something that is usually extrinsic to the character, which is why I discuss the concept separately.  And they’re important enough to the plot that I think it bears taking time to think about them before commencing with the work of writing. 

I make notes about these sorts of plot devices that I intend to use in a story as new thoughts and ideas occur to me.  Historically, I’ve kept these notes in a notebook, but I’ve also started using a personal wiki platform to re-record all my notes and cross reference them.

When I think about these plot devices, I often think of them in terms of an equation.  The existence and use of the plot device, if thought about logically, implies something about the world, and about the story.  I try to think about the logical implications of each such device, and what it means for the story.  Likewise, if I want a certain effect to be had on the story through the use of a device, I try to think logically about the nature of the device that will be necessary to achieve that effect.

Basically, if I have a value on one side, the equation nature dictates a solution on the other.  I like for these plot devices to make sense, and to be elegant and convincing.  So I keep thinking about them until I get a certain feeling, an “aha!” moment: the sense that this is the perfect solution to the idea.  Basically, I want something that gives me the same feeling I get when I read a good novel or story that has a moment in it that makes me say to myself: “Of course!  That makes perfect sense! I should have seen it all along!”

If I can give myself that feeling, I figure chances are good a reader will have the same reaction.

For instance, I’ve been thinking over the past couple weeks about a plot device I’d thought up for the book I’ve been writing/re-writing since time began.  In this most recent incarnation, in which I’ve been rethinking everything from the ground up before writing anything, I’d decided it makes dramatic sense to make a very powerful tool available to my protagonist very early in the story.  Initially, the protagonist won’t be able to reuse this tool, for reasons that make sense because of the nature of the tool.  But then I thought: those reasons don’t apply to the antagonist of the story.  So, what prevents the antagonist from making repeated use of this powerful tool, giving him an insurmountable advantage?  I’ve had to rethink the nature of the tool, and explore the logical implications of its existence, in order to answer that question.  I’ve had to decide whether there is something more about the tool that might, in fact, prevent the antagonist from making repeated uses of it or instead if the antagonist’s use of the tool is precisely what I need to heighten tension in the story.  Which direction provides the most elegant and balanced solution to the problem?  Asking myself these questions now, before I set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) again to write the book itself will save a lot of potential grief later.

So, when you think about the plot of your stories, and the various devices, foreshadowing, Chekhov’s guns, and other things important to the plot, consider their logical implications.  If the answers you get aren’t the ones you expected, you might need to go back to the drawing board, or adjust your expectations and rethink your plot.  Either way, happy writing.

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