The other day I was watching something with my 14-year-old son – I forget exactly what – and there was a payoff in the third act. You know – a big deal is made of something seeming small and inconsequential in the first act, and then it comes around to bite the protagonist in the butt – or serve as their salvation – in the climax of the piece.
My son noticed this right away, and said, “I knew that would turn out to be important!” So I told him this famous rule of writing: If you show the audience a gun in the first act, it has to go off by the third act.
(I just looked it up, and turns out this is a principle created by Anton Chekhov, and that guy knew a thing or two about storytelling, so I guess it’s worth noting!)
My son just loved this saying. He’s taken right to it – now, whenever we watch anything and there’s a little something, a small side scene that seems to have no reason, he immediately points out the “gun” in the story. It hasn’t ruined anything for him; he’s not one to be affected by spoilers as it is, but in this particular case, he’s delighted to be able to spot the story making at work. It’s like he’s joined a secret club, those who know the ins and outs of a good tale, who know the inside scoop on how to create drama and intrigue.
I often write without giving much thought to the “rules.” Writing for me is an instinctive thing – I’m an pantser, not a planner, when it comes to storytelling. I ignore all advice to write an outline, to draft a plot and then grow it from there. Instead, I usually think of an interesting first line, or perhaps stumble across an interesting character, and just write from there and see what happens.
It’s working for me as I explore short pieces – and I mean really short, as my “short” stories are often no more than 1200 words. But I’m wondering if now is the time to start thinking about those rules. Rules, as they say, were meant to be broken, but when it comes to writing, a few guidelines from masters like Chekhov can’t be all bad.
I have to say, I really do like that one about the gun. It’s so simple and obvious – and yet, so true. If you show them the gun, then use the gun.
I think I’ll keep that one in mind as I work on my next story. What’s your favourite writing “rule” – and do you ever break it?