• Published a book you want to tell us about? Uploaded a YouTube video you want to share?

    Normally you'll need 100 posts to self-promote, but with an upgraded membership you can do so with your first post.

    Find out more here: Become a Supporting Member

Common mistakes in writing

SNG

Higgs boson
Joined
Dec 9, 2008
Messages
22
Location
Searching for that elusive, mysterious meaning of
Squid on the Mantelpiece
Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."
I think what they mean to say is, if you have a really powerful weapon or character in your book, you either need to use him ASAP or you're gonna need a very convincing reason why he's not getting involved.
For instance, look at Marvel Comics. They had a series where Superman teamed up with less powerful characters such as Batman etc. They had to come up with a reason why Superman couldn't save the day in every episode, or else the other guys had nothing to do.
"Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third"

My recollection of this from drama classes was that he actually said that if you saw duelling pistols on the set, they were bound to be fired in the play some time. It was more a comment of the frugality of stage-dressing. But it's just as valid in films and even dialogue or narration in novels/stories. If a female character says she feels a bit dizzy, she's pregnant. If a character says they were a racing driver once, there's going to be a car chase. If there's a scene in a cave, you're eventually going to meet the bear who normally lives there.

The trick as I see it is how to include these small details without telegraphing that you intend using them later, probably to help your hero escape the villain's lair (or whatever).
...
My understanding of it is when Chekhov said that, he was talking about the set-up of the story, the plot. If you mention some striking detail, something important in the beginning that could influence or define the story, it could and should be utilised later on, otherwise there is no need to plant such details in the first place and then leave them forgotten. In other words, perhaps he meant that if you have a "gun on the wall" at the start of the story, it's just ought to "go off" (and probably shoot someone) later on.
 

HareBrain

Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
10,353
Location
West Sussex, UK
I've had Chekhov's gun explained to me (wrong-way-round, it turns out) that if pistols are to be fired in the third act, they should be shown in the first - i.e. no powerful story elements should be introduced without some previous hint of their existence, which I think is also valuable to consider, though not a hard-and-fast rule.
 

Precision Grace

Gracefully precise
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
288
I've had Chekhov's gun explained to me (wrong-way-round, it turns out) that if pistols are to be fired in the third act, they should be shown in the first - i.e. no powerful story elements should be introduced without some previous hint of their existence, which I think is also valuable to consider, though not a hard-and-fast rule.
But please don't be too literal. Plays are not the same as prose. In prose, guns over the mental peace can be there for reasons other than to be fired in chapter 6. They could be there as a link to an interesting past. They could be there to show off certain type of wealth or social standing. Or they could even be there to show that no shooting will take place in chapter 6.

This rule is basically about removing unnecessary elements from your story. Except in prose a purpose could sometimes be 'because it reads beutifully'. I haven't checked, but I think poetic licence is still allowed. :rolleyes:
 

Interference

Destroyer of Words
Joined
Apr 18, 2007
Messages
2,572
Location
I'm human.
My understanding of it is when Chekhov said that, he was talking about the set-up of the story, the plot. If you mention some striking detail, something important in the beginning that could influence or define the story, it could and should be utilised later on, otherwise there is no need to plant such details in the first place and then leave them forgotten. In other words, perhaps he meant that if you have a "gun on the wall" at the start of the story, it's just ought to "go off" (and probably shoot someone) later on.
Exactly my reading of it. I seem to make a mess of explaining things, which is a bit of a problem for a writer :eek:
 

Boneman

Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 4, 2008
Messages
5,234
Location
Working with the Bare Bones of talent
Reading this thread, I realise I have an enormous problem with pov: two of my characters can telepathically read each other's minds, so their pov is simultaneous, and they can inhabit two different scenes at the same time. I think I'll go and re-write, and remove their ability - they did nothing to deserve it anyway......
 

seraphim26

Atop a high tower
Joined
Jan 30, 2009
Messages
16
hey guys
I'm new here and have been reading through a lot of the threads, but I must say this one is really helpful. I've just started writing a sc-fi story, and am a few chapters in, and using check lists like these really help iron out any issues. Thus far I've had good reaction to what I've written, so fingers crossed that I won't eat any squids or do anything an evil overlord wouldn't.

Great stuff :D

Seraph.
 

Uberflaven

Member
Joined
Jun 15, 2009
Messages
6
Indeed, it is a great thread, both to get a laugh and to gain personal experience. I'd like to comment the Chekhov gun thing; it is intended mainly for theater. In theater space is very limited, so everything is there for a reason. If there's no reason for a prop, it would not be there. So if you see a gun, it has a good reason for being there. If it was decoration it could simply be painted into the background. Of course props are no problem for movies, since one can use as many as found apropriate; the Predators have many skulls as trophies on their ships, and they are simply there to look cool, and give the idea that Predators like to keep trophies and are very good at it. So as I see it, this is something one must avoid (unless intended for the plot). For example, in a book, spending a bunch of lines describing something gives away the fact that it it simportant; imagine it as the typical scene on a movie where there's a closeup of a sword on the ground; it gives you the idea that the heroe will pick it up to kill the bad guy at the last moment. I don't like that since it makes the plot quite predictable. Beware tough, making the sword appear mysteriously is worse, since it seems the sword was introduced in a deux-ex kind of way. So the way I think one might best aproach a situation like this would be having a guy be killed in the background and drop the sword. It happens, but not much attention is drawn, so it it regarded as something trivial; only when used it becomes obvious. At least it's what I like. Others prefer the idea of having the reader predict the plot (which normally is bad for the protagonist) and suffer thinking how the said protagonist will survive.

Also, I sometimes have found character inconsistencies in things I read and I must say they are decieving, since it destroys the idea you had of a particular character. Typical examples are the villan going good and helping the heroe. I'm very careful with this kind of things for the foresaid reason; sometimes I have to change (or erase) a "scene" simply because what I tought of would not be done by the character, for instance, a very egocentric character would not help anyone for the fun of it, and the "I'm helping because I want to/I'm doing this for myself" simply seem to me like weak justifications.
One last thing (yes, you can shoot me for the long post if you wish) is about the POV; I believe it depends on the narrator, since third person omni would know what all the characters are thinking, and could say it. That is why I use first person, and in first person it is impossible for more than one person's thoughts to be known unless we have telepathy and such. An other option is third person, but not make him omniscient, but rather limited, and follow a single character. This one I believe is the most apropiate in SF since it saves explaining how strange contraptions work (since the narrator can simply "not know" thus not explain).

Again, I see many of you have great ideas, and am grateful for them; I've been searching for a forum like this and am glad I found it (in spain science fiction literature is rather limited).

*EDIT: sorry if I revived a dead thread, but for some strange reason I read that the messages had today's date and tought it was actually very recent.
 

Boneman

Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 4, 2008
Messages
5,234
Location
Working with the Bare Bones of talent
EDIT: sorry if I revived a dead thread, but for some strange reason I read that the messages had today's date and tought it was actually very recent.


Hey, it's good to bump an old thread, occasionally, if just to get a perpective on what we said a few months ago. ( I didn't remove their telepathic ability, but toned it down enormously.)

If you like whodunits, thrillers and the occasional crime film , Chekhov's gun is alive and well, used either intentionally by scriptwriters, or by serendipitous fortune. If the detectives/hero/heroine go past someone on the stairs/as they're going into a building/getting out of a taxi/bus etc, you can be pretty sure that they're the ones who did it!! This is only before the crime has been discovered - usually the hero/ine then stumbles on the scene... In other words the character is chekov's gun and will be used toi devastating effect later.

This may ruin your film entertainment as you look for them, but trust me...
 

Peter Graham

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 10, 2007
Messages
1,616
It seems to me that many of us aspiring writers routinely make the same mistakes as we learn how to write fiction. I spend a bit of time in Critiques, but very often don't offer a critique nowadays (sounds of rejoicing across the forum) because I can't face commenting again on head-hopping, tense changes, showing not telling, info dumping or whatever.

It would be unrealistic to expect aspiring writers to trawl through oodles of previous posts in order to seek out comments which might be relevant to them, so it occurs to me that perhaps we could sticky this thread (or one like it) in Critiques too, so that we have more of a "one stop shop" for generic or commonly-given advice. "Show don't tell" seems to come up daily, for example, and if we added together all the hours that different members have spent typing out variations on the same point, we'd probably have enough time to listen to the entire back catalogue of prog-rock noodlers Yes, without a break. Which is, as I am sure we would all agree, a frightening thought.

I specifically have in mind an excellent post which Chris made about tense usage - it was an absolute gem, but new members are unlikely ever to find it. But plenty of others have also put up their two penn'orth and I think that if we were to collate it all (or, as is more likely, build a new thread from scratch), we might end up with a pretty good resource.

What does everyone think?

Regards,

Peter
 

ctg

weaver of the unseen
Supporter
Joined
Aug 21, 2007
Messages
6,873
Yes Peter, it's a good idea. Actually much, much better idea than having it here in a section of forum, where nobody looks at it.
 

chopper

Steven Poore - Epic Fantasist & SFSF Socialist
Joined
Feb 4, 2005
Messages
2,254
Location
Sheffield, SoYo
agreed.
we'd probably have enough time to listen to the entire back catalogue of prog-rock noodlers Yes, without a break.
you say that as though it were a bad thing!

He spoke of lands not far
Or lands they were in his mind.
Of fusion captured high
Where reason captured his time.
In no time at all he took me to the gate.
In haste I quickly checked the time.
If I was late I had to leave to hear your wonderous stories.
Had to hear your wonderous stories.
:D:D:D
 

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Joined
Nov 10, 2008
Messages
10,266
Location
nearly the New Forest
Excellent idea, Peter, and one I've thought about from time to time. Particularly useful, I'd have thought, for the punctuation errors and the 'they're/their' 'your/you're' problems which do seem to crop up a lot. Frankly, I'm not convinced many new writers to the site will read any sticky before posting (the guidelines on formatting are hardly universally obeyed!) but yes, it would be helpful to point someone in the direction of this kind of post/thread instead of having to spend a lot of time explaining about the possessive apostrophe and how it works.

I think the difficulty with the show/tell and perhaps even the POV change issues, is that these things are not immediately obvious when you read your own work. And what is an info dump to me is an elegant piece of scene-setting to someone else. So even with a resource of this kind, we'll still need to have intelligent critiquers like you pointing out what is wrong - so get yourself back in there and start critiquing again!

J
 

Peter Graham

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 10, 2007
Messages
1,616
Great stuff - I've made a start on a new thread, so perhaps if one of the Mods can give us the green light, we can sticky it and/or bolt in some of the good news from this particular thread - the Chekhov discussion has been excellent, in my view.

Judge - you are very good on grammar, so do you want to take the Beginners Guide to the Apostrophe?

He spoke of lands not far
Or lands they were in his mind.
Of fusion captured high
Where reason captured his time.
In no time at all he took me to the gate.
In haste I quickly checked the time.
If I was late I had to leave to hear your wonderous stories.
Had to hear your wonderous stories.
You've almost got a point, but in all fairness, that is their best song from their best album! But twelve hours ina darkened room listening to the orchestral, self-indulgent twaddle that is " Tales from the Topographic Oceans" really would sort the sheep from the goats.

Regards,

Peter
 

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Joined
Nov 10, 2008
Messages
10,266
Location
nearly the New Forest
Great stuff - I've made a start on a new thread, so perhaps if one of the Mods can give us the green light, we can sticky it and/or bolt in some of the good news from this particular thread - the Chekhov discussion has been excellent, in my view.

Judge - you are very good on grammar, so do you want to take the Beginners Guide to the Apostrophe?
Happy to do this - or to help Chris (or anyone else) if he starts it before I can get around to it. I'm meant to be rationing my time here for the next fortnight or so in an effort to finish off some changes to my own stuff (I shouldn't be here now, only I'm fed up staring at the blank page that is chapter 14...)

J
 

HareBrain

Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
10,353
Location
West Sussex, UK
Peter, you tease! I've just come from the Critiques forum where my first reaction on seeing the list of threads was: "Holy ****! At last, we get to see some of Peter Graham's writing!"

Well, we did, I guess, but (presumably) not your best work.

I think it's a great idea, with one caveat. If someone doesn't understand a suggestion, or wishes to discuss it (as an example that has recently arisen, about punctuating dialogue tags) would that be on the same thread? Because if there were clarification discussions on several different points all happening at once in the same thread, that would get pretty messy.
 
Top