Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Frugal Law of Chekhov

As a writer with over twenty years of experience, I have learned a hard lesson which every writer learns eventually. Do not include any passive person, place, or thing unless it is to play an important role some where later in the story. In plays, where the script is sparse and the actors fill in much of the actual scene, if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first scene, then it must be used at some point later in the play. In Haley Cork and the Blue Door I show a black hole as a means to eliminate a witch, and near the end of the book Haley Cork uses a black hole to do something similar.

The principle of frugality is critical to keeping a story uncluttered with elements which are not essential to the telling of the story. There is a form of Irish ballad which violates this principle to such a degree that the listener is rapidly distracted from the main theme which is the innkeeper’s infidelity to his wife. For a story to more than just an entertaining ditty though, we as writers must focus on shoring up any plot holes by hunting down the extraneous details, and either put them to use or expunge them from the story with prejudice.

It is difficult when writing under the influence of a stream of consciousness to remember every little thing that we may write as we go along, so I’m going to teach you a couple of little tricks to keep thing in order.

If you mention a passive person, place, or thing (element), then decide at that moment whether you want it to remain passive in that context or to elevate it to an active state immediately. As an example, if the gun on the wall is not going to be used in the story and is just an ornament then make it something which could never play an active role, such as a moose head or a stuffed armadillo, at least then it gives character to the story and plays a role in scene creation. If you absolutely must have a gun on the wall, then you must use it later on in the story, if not immediately. If you mention a bus driver or a milkman, then at some point in the story you have to bring them in to play at least a minor role in the story, otherwise there is no point in mentioning them.

When you mention a passive element, write it down separately as well as the chapter and page it occurs. You word processor may have an annotation feature – use it! When you complete a chapter then go over the list of elements you have accumulated and decide whether to utilize them or remove them from the story line.

Another trick I use is to reread each paragraph individually and identify every element in it. I do this after my rough draft, free association phase, and it help me determine whether the story has the right flavor. When I have my list, I can then choose to expand on a description of any particular sentence into a full paragraph or omit it altogether. Once again, if it isn’t essential to the story then it isn’t needed in the book.

By now, you are probably struggling with a fifty thousand-word manuscript and wondering how to come up with another seventy or eighty thousand words. Why would you want to omit non-essential words when you can hardly come up with enough to say to fill out the book? That’s the difficult part. There is always more to say in the story. Check your dialog -- maybe you don’t have enough. Check your main theme -- are all of the conditions for your theme met? Are your characters’ back-stories adequately formed? Do you have clean and fully described scenes? There a many books out in print where the author stalled a fifty thousand words because he or she couldn’t find anything more to say about the main character. The successful writers must then decide whether to introduce an additional character or rethink the entire plot. I usually opt for an additional character since it makes the story more interesting and allow colorful plot elements to adorn the story. Remember, the more characters you have in the story the higher the degree of conflict and the more interesting everything gets. If another character won’t fix it, then maybe my plot isn’t strong enough and I need to punt on the project.

So sweep away the unnecessary passive elements and either convert them to active elements in the story or get rid of them altogether. Trust me -- you’ll be happier with the result in the long run.

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