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A man with a gun: Chandler and Chekhov’s ‘Rules’

Advanced tips for writers

Here are a couple of writing ‘rules’ that you can use – with a little bit of 21st century wrangling – whatever you are writing. Believe me, whether you’re a blogger, a screenwriter, a playwright, a novelist, a short story writer, a nonfiction writer, memoirist, journalist or poet, this works. In this post, we’re talking two famous writers and two famous pieces of writing advice, both involving guns: Chandler and Chekhov’s ‘Rules’.

A caveat

I’ll put my hands up (see what I did there?) and say that I’m not 100% comfortable talking about gun-related writing rules – and you can check out this blog post to find out what’s wrong with writing tips and ‘rules’ – but let me just say up front that you can substitute ‘gun’ for almost anything surprising, significant or dangerous (or even better surprising, significant AND dangerous) and these techniques still work.

Raymond Chandler’s ‘man with a gun’

So what am I going on about? Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959) was a writer of detective fiction, probably most famous for The Big Sleep (1939) and the series detective Philip Marlowe. He also wrote about the writing process. Most crime fiction buffs will be able to tell you that Chandler* advised us:

“when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand”

Only he didn’t. Because when Chandler said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” he was talking about “the demand […] for constant action” and how “this could get to be pretty silly”. He also said somewhat wistfully “if you stopped to think you were lost”. In other words, he was NOT issuing a tip for budding crime writers. He’s saying something closer to: there’s a demand for constant action in detective fiction, men are always rushing in with guns, there’s no time to look around, that’s sort of a shame, but that’s what you’ve got to do to get published these days (these days being 1950). And note he’s firmly within his genre here. (Think about how this ethos applies to the thing you passionately want to write.)

So now we’ve sorted that out, let’s look at how “when in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” works if we extract the sentiment – probably not Chandler’s sentiment, but let’s not worry about that. (And read this post on balance if you’re tempted to have a gun waving man in every other scene!)

I said this worked whatever kind of writer you are, surely I’m not saying that blog posts and poems need men with guns?

Three simple pieces of writing advice that work brilliantly

No. I’m suggesting that “when in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” can be translated into three pieces of advice that sound simple, but work brilliantly. They are (drum roll please) as follows. When in doubt:

  • Surprise us.
  • Keep returning to the specifics of the action.
  • Keep returning to your purpose, your ‘why’, the reason you are writing in the first place.

Anton Chekhov’s pistol

The playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was actually only 28 years older than Chandler, although they inhabited different eras and wrote in entirely different styles. They did have something in common though. Guessed it yet? Probably, because I’ve been foreshadowing like mad. They are both associated with writing rules about guns. Chekhov issued this advice several times in letters and phrased it differently, but it boils down to:

“If there’s a pistol on the wall above the fireplace in Act One, then it should be fired in Act Two. Otherwise remove it.”

This can mean:

  1. Foreshadow – or hint at – the significant plot action, ideas or images early on. This helps guide your reader through. (See how I foreshadowed foreshadowing above?)
  2. Or: Cut out insignificant detail or you’ll confuse the reader. Don’t foreshadow for no reason.
  3. Or: Don’t let important ideas peter out.

Hemingway weighs in

In an added twist, about sixty years later Ernest Hemingway countered this advice:

“It is also untrue that if a gun hangs on the wall when you open up the story, it must be fired by page fourteen. […] with a good enough writer, the chances are some jerk just hung it there to look at.” (From ‘The Art of the Short Story,’ 1959)

Hemingway – if the internet is anything to go by – is cause célèbre of the writing quotation and here he is contradicting Chekov’s gun ‘rule’. Looks like Chekov was fond of dishing this advice out to friends, and Hemingway is saying it’s bunkum. So what to do?

The gun in the fridge

Having read a lot of work by beginning writers down the years I’ve noticed that a significant number of them over-promise at the start of a piece of writing – any piece of writing. In other words, the piece is stuffed full of ornamental guns, over the fireplace, on the sofa, in the back of the fridge. The work reads like they’ve had lots of good ideas for the story but haven’t seen them through. Why does this happen?

  1. This could happen because they didn’t plan out how their work would progress in advance but worked it out as they went along – in which case the solution is to do an edit particularly for over-foreshadowing.
  2. They simply couldn’t decide which direction to go in. They liked all of their ideas, but couldn’t see them all through because that wouldn’t make sense in one story, but they kept the early indications of these ideas in anyway. In this case, the writer needs to remember that she or he can write more than one thing – they simply need to make a note of all these great ideas (the gun in the fridge, for example) and use them next time.

Usable advice

So how do we translate “If there’s a pistol on the wall in Act One, then it should be fired in Act Two. Otherwise remove it” to make it usable advice for all kinds of writers, not in the 1880s or 1950s but now? Perhaps we could read it as:

  • Find ways to under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Find ways to surprise us, but also make us go ‘I knew that gun in the fridge was significant’.

And remember I said that you could substitute ‘gun’ for almost anything surprising, significant or dangerous? You could interpret that as memorable, unusual, risky or shocking, depending on the type of writer you are. Another alternative – perhaps this is what Hemingway was hinting at – is that you can play with the idea. You could surprise us, but offer no explanation, or include characters and objects that never reappear. (According to Hemingway, you have to be ‘a good enough writer’ to make this work, but he also refers to his readers as ‘gentlemen’ in ‘The Art of the Short Story’, so what did he know?)

Keep the reader interested

When Chandler quasi-lamented the idea that you’ve got to keep producing men with guns if you’re going to get published, perhaps his advice boiled down to the need to keep the reader interested. How do you do that? According to our two famous writing ‘rules’, you need to:

  • Foreshadow – be intriguing – put a gun in the fridge – but see it through.
  • Surprise us or beguile us, using the thing you passionately want to write.

By the way, if you can spot the three crime writing related puns in this blog post, you’ll win a copy of How to Write a Novel and Get it Published. (I’ve given the second pun away.) Let me know in the comments. I may also reward entertaining guesses!

More soon. Until then,

Happy writing,

Louise

* Note: This is total conjecture, but when reading Chandler’s essays on crime fiction, it’s fairly easy to imagine someone has commissioned him to write and he’s doing so begrudgingly. I’m happy to be wrong – please let me know if you are a Chandler aficionado. What I do know is that he sometimes published articles, essays and stories under the same title, meaning it’s difficult to track down the source of Chandler quotations. Because of this, I think, but I’m not certain, that the quotation in question appeared in an article called ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ in The Saturday Review of Literature in April 1950.

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