Friday, February 10, 2012

Chekhov's Junkshop

'Antique shop - or junk yeard?' photo (c) 2008, net_efekt - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Chekhov’s gun is a theatre and literature term coined by Anton Chekhov saying: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

Or, in other words, you shouldn’t have something in the plot if it is not relevant. If you mention something, it should add to the plot, the characterisation, the world building - something. Well, reading Urban Fantasy, we have gone beyond mere Chekhov’s gun. We’re lost in Chekhov’s junkshop. We have so many irrelevant things piled on the shelves, stacked under foot  and hanging from the ceiling, that it is an arduous task to battle through it all.

If you are an avid reader of fiction, I am quite certain that you have come across this little trope. For the life of me, I don’t understand why writers have a tendency to tell rather than show.  This of course results in copious amounts information delivered in the most dry fashion possible, that leads a reader to look at their toilet and think that it would far more fun to clean it, than read another ponderous word.

And when showing really needs to be the norm when it comes to emotion. Aside from the fact we really do not need to know every single little emotional nuance a character feels at every given moment (seriously, it’s like having a mood ring attached to the book), please show us. We can usually infer anger, sadness, etc from their actions, we don’t need to be told - and if your telling us takes the better part of 2-3 pages of moping, for you to adequately describe just how very very sad your character is, then I am going to go find something more interesting to do. Like clean tile grout. And if there is anything worse than telling rather than showing - it is showing AND telling. When I see lines like this: Jane collapsed, sobbing piteously. Her heart was like ash, she never imagined she could ever feel happiness again, she sobbed in misery, her grief almost overwhelming I despair. The minute she was prostrate and sobbing piteously, I knew how sad she was. I don’t need 5 more paragraphs to tell me the sad character is sad.

Speaking of telling, not showing. We know your world is fascinating and interesting and we know you want to tell us about it. But World Building should not be a series of info-dumps. If we want long lectures we can go back to university or dig up our text books - show us the world, introduce us to concepts as they become relevant - don’t treat us to essays. And on the subject of essays - if you have a degree in English literature (or any field) your novel is not the place to show off how many books you’ve read and can quote or how much you know. If you’re that desperate to establish your credentials, include your letters in the “about the author” section.

The really inventive writers then of course get into bed with Mr. Thesaurus in an attempt to make their ramblings seem more important.  This means we get the happy marriage of over written prose, combined with words that no one has used since the 1400’s.  Please, please, if you must bore us with over written pretentious nonsense, for heaven’s sakes at least spare poor Mr. Thesaurus such abuse.  What did he ever do to you, to result in such a continuous beating?  If you must continue to thrash Mr. Thesaurus, may I recommend that you have the decency to at the very least introduce him to Ms. Dictionary.  You see, using a word improperly further throws off your useless prose and makes it even more frustrating to have to slog through, in the hope of somehow magically finding a plot.  Sometimes finding a plot behind all of the info dumping and useless world building is like searching for the one grain of salt in the pepper grinder. 

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