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Chekhov's armoury and narrative dead ends

HareBrain

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Taken from an excellent blog post by @The Big Peat "The Shape of Stories"

When reading the following article by MD Presley some of my thoughts on this started to coalesce as to just why its so important not to let the story's shape be so obvious.

I believe that at the very heart of storytelling, the most important thing is that we are asking our audience to agree with us that we’re saying is something that could have happened. It’s often hung with a million caveats, like magic being real or owls and pussycats going boating together, but we are saying either “This is what happened” or “Maybe this could have happened”. We storytellers are nothing without credibility. Even the most far-fetched absurdist is sunk if people start going “but no one would react like that, this isn’t real at all”. Not that it has to be real mind; it just has to feel real. We are in the business of selling verisimilitude.

Which is why things like Chekhov’s Gun is important. Our audience know we’re liars (if I ever make it I’m having professional liar put on my business cards) and they’re okay with it, but they want a framework to the lies so they can play along at home. It has to make sense. It has to feel real. We can’t have things suddenly appear out of nowhere because that makes them remember that they’re not real. So far so obvious.

But of course there is an issue and that is the one Matt has identified – it is telegraphing what will happen. And if it telegraphs too much, if we start running out of ways to the use the gun, then he shape of the story is too obvious. And if something is too obvious, if it feels too convenient, it begins to press against the belief that this could have happened.
How to manage this depends partly on genre. Chekhov’s Gun makes a lot of sense for those working in constrained mediums. But if one is writing Epic Fantasy, which deliberately seeks to tell the tales that don’t work in constraints, or mysteries where obfuscating the shape of the story is rather important, then it maybe shouldn't be following all that close. If one is writing both, it creates issues multiplied. But you still need framing devices. You still need foreshadowing.

One idea I’d like to suggest (it’s probably been suggested far better by someone else) is a market stall. If there is only one object of importance present in the first act, then the shroud over the story’s shape is very fragile. If there is only one object of importance and a lot of red herrings, then once we’ve disposed of the herrings, we’re back to the same problem. There’s nothing wrong with thing in and of itself, but there is if every story is some variation on those two.

If there are many objects of importance, then the reader is left with a logic puzzle of what goes where and even if they think they know one of the answers, they’re unsure. The most obvious example I can think of is the many unfulfilled prophecies and potential claimants left in GoT, but it can just as easily work with multiple crimes and multiple suspects. I can think of one detective story that answered the question of who tried to kill the victim by having it revealed that they all tried.

Is this going to work for every story? No. But then, it would be bad if this was every story as well.
I've been thinking about this the last few days in relation to the third book in my Fire Stealers series: basically (as Peat might put it) how many of the guns shown on the wall need to be fired at all, or need to have ammunition still in them by the climax, and I was cheered by his thought that in epic-type fantasy particularly (which I guess Fire Stealers is) it probably helps to have these red herrings and narrative dead ends, because they stop the shape of the story being so obvious.

And yet, something in me rebels against the idea of not having everything come together at the end and tying up in a nice Gordian bow.

The one that concerns me at the moment is that the start of my book 3 contains quite a lot about the creation of a defensive weapon, in which the main characters get involved to a greater or lesser extent. It ties in thematically, is useful to the plot at the beginning, and more importantly it is what would logically happen in those circumstances. But it won't get very far because the "project leader" will stop leading it, and I have no plans for it after that. Part of me, the structuralist, wants to find a way to bring it back in at the end, and part of me thinks that would overcomplicate an already intricate story. What I hadn't considered before reading Peat's blog was that having it seem to be important and then fade out might actually serve the story by making its shape less obvious.

Interested in any other thoughts about this (the general point, not my example).
 

Jo Zebedee

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For me, I'd like some kind of closure on the plot arc (even if it goes nowhere - but then I'd want the going nowhere to be relevant or lead somewhere else, if that makes sense..._) but I wouldn't feel the need for it to wait until the end to close. I don't like not having questions answered, but I'm pretty cool on where they are answered.

In Abendau's Heir, I had a scene with Lichio being bribed to give Kare to the Empress. I made it clear that he didn't take it but I never said why - @Teresa Edgerton was very sure I needed to. She said it was the kind of loose end that readers don't like. So I went back and expanded a conversation with Silom to close it - and in so doing, gave the explanation (which I didn't know) of how Eevan got pulled into the Empress's web.

I'm now a firm believer that if my subconscious says something, it's probably right. So if yours is saying this is a dead end, it probably is. But that doesn't mean that plot strand was there for no reason. Maybe you need to work out the reason :)
 

The Big Peat

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Good grief I need to start proofreading my blogs. Also its far too early in the morning for this.



I think that most Epic Fantasies are, after a bit, so big that they have to tie off some of the ends early if they've to have a sensible conclusion. Game of Thrones would be way too chaotic if all of Stannis, Renly, etc.etc. were still alive.

I also think that, to argue slightly against myself, sometimes a big obvious hanging doom can be a big part of an enthralling story. Some parts of the shape need to be obvious.

I guess it all comes down to picking which parts. If anything about that jumble of words helped you pick, then I am very happy!
 

The Judge

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Personally, I'd want it tied up within the story in some way, though don't forget it doesn't need to be tied up in this book, you've got several more to write, so could it be the defensive weapon comes into its own in the plot of a later book? All you then need is some broad hint that it's not finished with now, even if the project manager has gone.

Red herrings are fine, but this doesn't sound like a true red herring since these actually are resolved and shown to be false clues, not irrelevancies. This sounds to me like having your characters involved in something which is then wholly irrelevant to the actual plot. That might be OK if it's only a scene or two, but anything more than that and I'd get very worked up about poor structure and story-telling.

Basically, if you removed all the scenes involving the defensive weapon, would the actual plot, revelations and denouement change? If so, it's part of the plot and necessary -- eg X can only do something because of what she learned when working on the weapon. If not, if whole swathes of the book could go without changing the bedrock of things, then that to me is poor structure and needs sorting out, either by making the weapon necessary to the plot or creating something else for them to do which is necessary.
 

Boneman

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Yeah, gimme a happy ending!!!

Failing that, a truly thought-provoking ending.

Is your story plot-driven, or character-driven? If plot, the weapon should be resolved one way or the other (fired or destroyed) and if it's character, then you can forget it. And have a sequel in 10 years time when some new character finds the weapon...
 

Venusian Broon

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I think that most Epic Fantasies are, after a bit, so big that they have to tie off some of the ends early if they've to have a sensible conclusion. Game of Thrones would be way too chaotic if all of Stannis, Renly, etc.etc. were still alive.
When did Stannis die? Okay in the TV series perhaps, but in the real story, I'm pretty sure he's still possibly alive...;)

Anyway back to the topic,

I think it depends on what sort expectations that you are cultivating in your reader. In my reckoning certain thrillers and mystery works, (and of course many SF/F/H books fall into these categories too) do have full-blown plot 'dead ends' that are there to bamboozle or misdirect, and readers of these types of books will be attune to such conceits, expecting them as part of their entertainment.

However they are, I find, remarkably delicate and difficult to pull off with aplomb. Everything in a novel must have some value of some sort, and if it is, as TJ has written above, totally irrelevant with regards to the plot (and the work is heavily plot-focused), or is there solely there to keep you guessing and then is disregarded in a moment then that can be very frustrating for me. Dedicated thrillers especially are the sort of book that frustrates myself the most just because of this.

However there can be other reasons for having 'irrelevances' that still add value to the whole, depending on the type of work you are envisioning, but then they're not really "Chekhov guns", I suppose. So I shan't go on about them!

As Peat stated 'will this work for every story. No'...

...thus the one set of novels that sprung to mind were Dan Simmons Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion. In this I'd say Simmons doesn't employ Chekhov gun but a full effin' armoury. Nothing is explained by the end of Hyperion*, and thus it should have been a book that I would have thrown against the wall in disgust....however I was largely enthralled by the pilgrim's tales, by the universe it weaves. There was something about the mystery the non-resolution gave that really helped to generate a living universe as I read and finished it.

...but then when I got The Fall of Hyperion everything is laid out bare and explained - all the oddities and mysteries evaporate. I felt it was too perfect. The world building stepped back and instead of feeling the mystery of a vibrant, real universe I felt the experience was more like putting together a very large and intricate jigsaw. Something that had been living and breathing was shown to be clockwork.

However I don't know if the above example is cheating. Simmons must have had both books in mind from the start, but I find it slightly counter-intuitive that I personally got more of a favourable response from a reading after getting virtually no answers, than getting the resolutions!


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* Of course as a very layered work, and the ending could be explained because it is Simmons homage to The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer didn't finish that and get his pilgrims to Canterbury, so how could Simmons pilgrims be allowed to reach their goal?
 

Ursa major

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Just some thoughts....
But [the creation of a defensive weapon] won't get very far because the "project leader" will stop leading it, and I have no plans for it after that. Part of me, the structuralist, wants to find a way to bring it back in at the end, and part of me thinks that would overcomplicate an already intricate story.
Presumably there is a purpose in this even being in the book in the first place and I assume that main purpose is delivered... as well as, perhaps, some other outcomes whose effects are less easy to quantify.

So I wonder whether you are:
  1. wanting to indulge a tendency for complete-ism (which is, perhaps, a slightly more justifiable version of putting all the research/background world-building into a book);
  2. feeling unhappy that the purpose this episode is meant to accomplish does not appear to you as being significant enough to justify the readers having followed through with that episode.
If it's (1), resist it; if it's (2), fix that, don't bring the defensive weapon back to life (which would, presumably require even more description of how this is achieved, or a good reason why its development has continued "off-screen").
 

Ihe

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My thoughts on story shape: Even with all the realism and scaffolding we can construct for the sweet towering lie that is fiction, I believe writers should concede that a book's ultimate entertainment purpose must be prioritized, even over suspension of disbelief (some might disagree with this, I understand). A genre book is not real life, so a shapeless story isn't possible, and readers aren't that unreasonable that they would expect it to be so. Of course, at some point in every story, the reader will be able to discern the shape. The writers' job is to push back that moment of revelation all they can, but it'll eventually happen, barring a lazy last minute deus-ex/diabolus-ex moment (which by the way, can happen at any time in real life--if that were to happen in very other book, there'd be no point in reading, because there'd be no reward for taking the time to understand the story though). The catharsis of the payoff is why people read, and that is only achieved through having expectations most of the times. In this regard, being able to loosely predict where the tracks lead will generate that vital impatience towards the resolution forming in the horizon, like that tropical island resort you can see from the boat as you approach. As long as the details are still blurry, I think it's fine to let readers see the story's silhouette. The real art is when the writer controls the timing for that reveal--having the reader guess it after the first 10 pages is not good, obviously. In that respect, I have no issues with a somewhat predictable plot. I'm OK knowing the answer is "5" as long as I don't know the exact equation. Is it 3+2? 9-4? 3x5-10?

My thoughts on the example given: Some works might circumvent the usual reader catharsis to an extent, but I find in the end it's all about keeping the reader satisfied at least, if not particularly happy. Sure, you don't have to sell your artistic soul to do this, and readers can put up with a lot of the writers' tricks and misdirection, but storytelling has limits. We cannot address the fictional world in its entirety. A writer dictates what the reader must pay attention to (that one character, this one place and time in the universe, those particular actions, etc). If we ask for the reader's attention, we're asking for investment of comprehension, emotion, and time. And they should get a return on their investment somehow. Maybe it's less than expected, or not what they imagined at all, but one needs to give them something, at least with the bigger investments.

One thing is misdirection because the protagonists themselves have been misled, and with them, the readers who look through their eyes (ie, if the defensive weapon project had been a ruse by the antagonist to make the MCs waste their time and resources, or to give them false hopes and crap on their morale, I'd be fine with dropping the matter). A different thing is misdirection at the plot level, where the author is the one artificially misleading you, and there's nothing you, as a reader, can do about it. That is not the organic suspension of disbelief (which I find many times equates as "trust in the writer") we strive for, and it's a method that will fall outside the framework of the story's internal truth anyway. For small things that is fine, but in your example, it seems like the defensive weapon is important. As a reader I'd feel betrayed to have that thread be arbitrarily cut before I can see where it goes. As others have said, if that withering plot branch offers new budding plot points or has contributed fruit to some significant story developments, then not all is lost, but it would still hurt my brain (I'm a bit of a completionist myself).
 

Teresa Edgerton

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though don't forget it doesn't need to be tied up in this book, you've got several more to write, so could it be the defensive weapon comes into its own in the plot of a later book?
I agree with this. You are writing a series. Maybe your subconscious mind (or perhaps your animal spirit guide) has wonderful plans for this later, but doesn't want to crowd your mind with the details while you are concentrating on whichever part of the story you are concentrating on now.
 

The Big Peat

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My thoughts on story shape: Even with all the realism and scaffolding we can construct for the sweet towering lie that is fiction, I believe writers should concede that a book's ultimate entertainment purpose must be prioritized, even over suspension of disbelief (some might disagree with this, I understand).
For me, if you break suspension of disbelief too hard, entertainment becomes impossible anyway. Its like saying an architect should focus on making a building look beautiful above everything, including structural support... the building has to stay up to look beautiful. And the story has to retain its internal consistency to stay fun.
 

Ihe

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Of course, I'm not saying to completely throw logic out the window. If you get to that extreme point in order to maintain a semblance of entertainment, it'd be worth it to rethink the whole thing from scratch instead. But as a reader, I generally would rather be entertained, and I'm willing to pay the price of some disbelief proportionate to the payoff. We all know stories where disbelief can creep in at times, but we can still enjoy them. I rarely read "boring" books to the end, no matter how well-structured. I'm simply arguing for the lesser of two evils. Entertainment will always be the priority for me. Sure, a balance is ideal, but when that fails, I'd err on the side of fun every time.
 

CTRandall

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As a reader, I wouldn't have a problem with the weapon being discarded entirely, so long as it doesn't take up too much time, the reasons for doing so are strong and some aspect of the weapon storyline continues to be important. Perhaps work on the weapon introduces us to a new character or reveals some important secret. That would make this part of the story important, just not for the reasons that the reader initially expected. That can be an effective means of disguising the shape of the story.

What I might worry about more is the overall storyline becoming fractured or episodic as characters shift from one goal to another. One or two major shifts in a novel can be rewarding but the danger is it ends up feeling like a set of short stories cobbled together.
 

sknox

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It sounds like you bring this weapon on stage for some significant period of time, but nothing much is going to come of it. Presumably at the time it's on stage, though, it has some consequences, even if it's just to show the project leader is incompetent or brilliant or whatever. That's all fine.

I think you were asking about the fading away, not necessarily how the whole story ends (though the two could be connected). As a reader, if it just fades away, I might very well say waitaminute, what happened with the framizdat? You can make me happy, though, by having your *characters* react to the fading away. If they acknowledge its existence and now its absence, then I have a way to react as well. It's the difference between the story itself disappearing the thing, and the author disappearing it. In the latter case, the reader feels cheated.
 

tinkerdan

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This is taken somewhat from here.
paraphrased within my own understanding.
a story thread—a “subplot”—requirements
Is it essential?
Does it add to the story?(The source uses narrative in some spots instead of story: I however feel there narrative is only a small part of story.)
Does it shape or deepen the story?
Does it shape, deepen or reveal the characters?

Now you could limit it by adding 'and' in between each of those.
OR you could 'or' them and leave it open for looser interpretation.

I prefer the latter leaving it open for any one of those to allow inclusion by itself.

As to loose or incompleteness to a thread:
You will likely get a varied response to anything that might look incomplete.
Some readers who apparently don't notice.
Some that may not care.
Some that scream, 'This sucks, the story is incomplete.'
And some vast yet undefined number who simply don't say anything.
 

L.L.Lotte

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I remember reading the final book in Steven Erikson's Malazan series and feeling unsatisfied because he had created so many plotlines that it became impossible for him to wrap it all up in the end. I feel he lost his way with most of them, and indeed, the series finished with so much unresolved, and even those that were resolved, felt like they had been forced into some semblance of closure that just wasn't natural at all. I feel that series could have kept going for much longer -- certainly, some characters deserved a better outcome than what they got...

I feel that the plotline you've got going on here should have some importance to the story, not just tossed aside when the characters no longer feel like following it. But if it cannot work, then perhaps revisit the reason why the project lead is leaving it and what that means for the project? If the character's reasoning and motivation for abandoning the project is good enough then maybe that is resolving it? Maybe they realised the project wasn't going to work out? So better to cut losses now.

Really it comes down to the reason why. I think most readers would accept the plotline going no further if they saw that the characters were not achieving anything by going down that road.
 
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