by M A N
Time has not been a friend of mine this week, but I do quickly want to discuss the concept of the "gun on the mantlepiece." Playwright Anton Chekov said that if there is a gun on the mantlepiece in ACT 1, it must go off in ACT 3. This little tidbit of literary wisdom is known as (obviously) Chekov's Gun (like the Wiki article says, this concept is often confused with foreshadowing. Personally I think they are distinctly different. I see foreshadowing as more of an abstract hint of things to come whereas Chekov's gun refers to more tangible objects or events).
Chekov's adage makes perfect sense. If you're going to show your audience something as profound as a the metaphorical gun, it better have some relevance to your story. There's nothing quite so frustrating as a story that is all set-up and no payoff.
I am terribly fond of Chekov's gun. However, I tend to misuse the concept (or perhaps just misunderstand). Whereas Chekov was referring to something that is obvious to the audience, I like things that aren't immediately obvious to the audience. They're little things that read as throwaway lines or pieces of scenery solely there to decorate the background. It isn't until the climax of the story that all these little fragments come into place.
The wrtiers of Dr. Who use this to wonderful effect.
Take for example, Season 4. The declining bee population, the missing planets, the Medusa Cascade, even the more obvious Rose Easter Eggs. They all act as breadcrumbs throughout the season until they coalesce in the final episodes.
What I love about these little "bullets" is that noticing them isn't imperitive to enjoying or understanding the story, but it adds a layer of enjoyment for audience members who like to delve a bit deeper. It also increases the enjoyment of a second viewing/reading as you notice clues and hints that seemed irrelevant before. This also makes future stories more enjoyable by encouraging the parsing of scenes and language for hidden meanings.
For a brief example, watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that Mark Waid posted on his site. Then go back and watch it again, keeping an eye out for all the clues. I'm sure there will be a couple of times where you'll slap your forehead and say, "Duh!" But notice what happenes. You've just watched a show TWICE, the second time being equally enjoyable yet for a different reason. To use a bad metaphor, you already know the punchline, but you're watching it for the joke.
I've done this with my own writing, specifically with Fall of Cthulhu. There is one specific bullet that I have been leaving on the mantlepiece since the very first issue that won't go off until the very last (next month as a matter of fact). The goal is to not only make the story enjoyable during the first reading, but to compel the reader to read the story a second time. Whether it works or not is something you will have to tell me.
On a separate note, we'll be skipping Guitar Friday this week since I'll be in New York for the New York Comicon. If any of you will be there, make sure to stop by BOOM! Booth #1313 on the main floor and say hi.