Friday, February 10, 2012

Chekhov's Junkshop

'Antique shop - or junk yeard?' photo (c) 2008, net_efekt - license:

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.

Related to this is also the problem of over-description. And this is especially a problem with any kind of romance where it seems to be absolutely essential that we have physical descriptions of how sexy someone is every other word. We know his eyes are blue, we know exactly what shade of blue his eyes are. We have not forgotten, we do not need you to tell us again. Yes, they’re still blue. And they’re still blue on the next page, and the next and the next. They’re blue! We get it!

Similarly, there are some things we don’t need to have described at all. We rarely need a detailed description of a character’s clothes (certainly not if they’re repeatedly changed). Do we really need detailed descriptions of bit characters who are adding nothing to the plot than background colour? There are endless things around a character that quite simply do not need description - sometimes it’s an attempt to make a world seem real and stunning, but usually it just makes the scene drag - it isn’t stunning, it’s dull, it’s unnecessary and ye gods it slows down the plot.

This also applies to actions. We do not need the best part of 2 pages to describe a character picking up the phone. We don’t need to know exactly how they pick up the phone, the exact tonal characteristics of the ring, the distance the character had to travel to reach the phone. Just pick up the phone! It is perfectly acceptable, at times, to describe a character crossing town as “Jane travelled across town.” If nothing relevant happened on her journey, there is absolutely no need for us to know every single step of the way. Similarly, do we need to know what colour the car is? Do we need to know what she’s wearing every scene? Another type for paranormal romance authors, please in the name of heaven insert some reality into your work.  If your male protagonist has a penis like a tree stump, every damn time he gets an erection he will pass out; it’s simple biology.  More is not always better, especially if more means the possibility of ripping his partner in two with his horse penis.

I have come to the conclusion that some of you must be fans of Jane Austen.  Once you give us your setting, is it really necessary to repeatedly tell us about the location.  If you told us that the protagonist has a small office, then you don’t need to remind us every time she goes into said office that it’s small, and you certainly don’t need to say this in every book in the series.  We don’t need a constant reminder that the protagonist lives in a rural area with constant description of the vegetation and hills.  Readers can remember basic facts.  

And lastly, we have to finish on scenes that quite simply do not belong. This is perhaps the grossest example of Chekhov’s junkshop there ever is. Scenes that simple add nothing to the plot or even the side-plot - sometimes entire chapters of pointlessness. No character is advanced, no plot advanced, no story told, no world is built. We literally have an entire scene where nothing actually happens.

Word count is not the key to a good story. And, frankly, beyond offence and failure, beyond insulting portrayals and grossly ridiculous stories riddled with plot holes, the thing that will cause me to want to put a book down more than anything else is being bored. When we have to mine for the story among drifts of pointless words, we will be bored and it will be work to pick that book up. And even the best story, the greatest characters and the most fantastic worlds can be obliterated by Chekhov’s junk.