Chekhov’s Gun – How to Make this Technique Work for You

The term Chekhov’s Gun refers to a literary technique built around playwright Anton Chekhov’s assertion that, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (This quote is found in endless variations. This particular version is from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No 28, July 11, p. 521)

Though this pearl of wisdom may be quite clear and helpful to you the next time you find yourself designing the set for your local community theater’s production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, perhaps you are currently wondering how Chekhov’s advice could possibly benefit you as a novelist.

Read the rest of the post on Let the Words Flow, here.


I've been given a blogging award!

I want to thank Carol Riggs and her wonderful blog, Artzicarol Ramblings, for sharing this wonderful blogging award with me. Please check out Carol's blog! As soon as you do, you will have found a new "haunt" for your inner writer on the internet. Carol posts fantastic advice about writing, and she presents it all in a clear way that makes it possible to put the advice to work in your own writing immediately.

As part of the fun of accepting this award, I get to share seven things about me, and then share the award with a few more worthy bloggers. So here goes:

Seven things about me: I'm a left-handed Phillies fan who loves guacamole. I am a member of the cooperative blog Let the Words Flow, and my favorite vacation destination is St. John in the US Virgin Islands. My favorite color is blue but my favorite color to wear is black.

And now, to share the award with other deserving blogs! Please check out these wonderful writing blogs. Each is unique in its approach, and each will help you become a better writer, a happier person, or, (most likely) both!:

Thanks again Carol!


Two Techniques for Creating Vivid Characters

This will be a bit of a simple post, since I'm currently fighting the flu. (Right now it's a draw, but I'm hoping to emerge the winner in a day or so!)

Creating a vividly drawn, unique, and interesting character... Where does a writer start? I want to propose two techniques for bringing the spark of a real, multi-faceted character to life. One I stole from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The other I stole from Sheryl Crow (and also JD Salinger, but mainly Sheryl Crow.)

Technique One - Fitzgerald - The "Start with a Person" Method:

Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, is widely known to have been the inspiration for the character of Daisy Buchanan, who in turn is believed to have been the inspiration for the "flappers" of the Roaring Twenties. Daisy was a unique, complex character, who didn't seem to borrow from the literary heroines who had come before her. Fitzgerald always upheld that his characters were unique because they started with an actual individual as their inspiration.

Fitzgerald said, "You can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing."

Technique Two - Crow (and Salinger) - The Judgmental Narrator Method:

Okay, maybe Sheryl Crow never taught character development to fiction writers, but she does deserve the credit for this next technique, since her song, "All I Wanna Do," inspired me to create characters in this particular way. Here's a quote from the song that exemplifies this technique:

"'All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die,'
Says the man next to me out of nowhere
It's apropos
Of nothing
He says his name's William but I'm sure,
He's Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy
And he's plain ugly to me
And I wonder if he's ever had a day of fun in his whole
We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday
In a bar that faces a giant car wash
The good people of the world are washing their cars
On their lunch break, hosing and scrubbing
As best they can in skirts in suits

They drive their shiny Datsuns and Buicks
Back to the phone company, the record store too
Well, they're nothing like Billy and me..."

What I love about these lyrics is the way they not only describe "Billy," but they tell you an awful lot about the narrator at the same time. You learn about the narrator by her internal reactions to Billy - she doubts he really goes by William, even though it's the name he gives her, she considers him "just plain ugly," and she wonders if he's ever had a day of fun in his whole life. Just these thoughts about the man sitting next to the narrator at the bar give you a lot of insight into the narrator herself. The narrator continues with observations about the people washing their cars across the street. It's lunchtime, and while she and Billy are drinking beers, "the good people of the world" are washing their cars, "on their lunch break." Her final observation about the members of the car-washing crowd is that, "they're nothing like Billy and me."

Within this one stanza, Crow has created an idea in our minds of what kind of person Billy is, and even a bit about what kind of people are at the car wash, but she's created an even stronger sense of understanding in our minds of the sort of person the narrator is. A great example of a narrator who reveals himself through his observations of the people around him is Holden Caulfield in CATCHER IN THE RYE. Holden is quite willing to share the details of his opinion of almost every character who crosses his path, and by so doing, he reveals the most about himself. (Salinger, of course, deserves credit for inspiring this second technique, but to be fair, it is Sheryl Crow and "All I Wanna Do" that I turn to when I need to be reminded of this method.)

Do you have specific techniques or methods that you use to help you create vivid characters? Please share your ideas with me in the comments!


Wow! I've received ten queries to critique!

Thanks to everyone who tweeted or retweeted about the query critique giveaway, and to all of you who have submitted a query. I'm SO excited about this! I see a lot of potential in these letters, and I'm already enjoying working on them. There's something really exciting about helping to shape an attention-grabbing query for a piece of writing that deserves to be read.

So thanks to all of you. Now I'm off to work on query critiques!


I want to critique your query for FREE!

If you're working on your query letter, or your query is currently circulating but not getting the response you were hoping for, I would love to take a crack at helping you tweak it. I'm in the midst of launching this blog and my freelance editing services, and I'm enjoying a GRAND OPENING state of mind. So if you would like a free query critique, send it to me via email at julieeshbaugh[at]gmail[dot]com .

I'll take the first ten that come in. When I receive the seventh, I'll post and tweet a "last call for free query critiques" alert.

So send me your query letters! I can't wait to roll up my sleeves.


Letters from your Characters

Wouldn't it be great if, when you went to your mailbox today, you found a letter inside from the main character of your WIP telling you just how she feels about the central conflict in the story? Or maybe she wrote a love letter to another one of your characters, and somehow it was misdirected to you? Imagine what a resource this letter would be!

When I do my outlining for a new WIP, I write up a lot of backstory. I also do character sketches, to help me have a definitive idea of each of my characters - not just hair color, eye color, and favorite movie, but what they would do on a perfect spring day, where they would go on vacation if money was no object, and - come to think of it - how they feel about money, in general. This is a fairly standard practice for character building, but I feel it only gets me so far.

That's why I've taken to writing first-person narratives - letters to me, if you will - in the voice of each character. These narratives generally address the main conflict faced by that character in the story, and how she or he feels about it. Does she believe that the problem is insurmountable? Does she still have hope? Who is she counting on most to help her? Who does she expect to cause her the most trouble?

I also write first-person narratives by all individuals involved in a romantic relationship in my story. For each one, I ask the character to tell me:
What do you love most about this other person?
What would you miss the most if he or she were taken away?
When did you first feel an attraction and what triggered it?
And, well, I'm sure you can come up with a lot more questions along this line.

When I wrote FIREFLY, I referred to these narratives constantly. They helped to maintain consistency within a character, but they also helped me see that, despite consistency, all well-rounded characters have internal conflicts they are dealing with. People are filled with contradictions. Your characters need to be, too, if they're going to leap off the page as real people with real complexity.

When you ask your character to tell you how he feels about the central conflict, chances are his answer will be complicated. It won't just be as simple as, "I hate my father and wish he were dead," because where's the true conflict in that? Nothing is ever that straightforward. If it were, in chapter one your character could pull out a shotgun and shoot his father and the story would be done. Instead, your character's answer to how he feels about the central conflict will be layered, complex, and in some ways, contradictory.

For you, as the writer, the secret to your character's arc lies hidden in these contradictions. Early in the story your character may respond most to the tug of one attitude toward the central conflict. But as the story moves along, he may feel the influence of another attitude toward that conflict, and he will begin to change. By the time he's completed his character arc, he may find himself in a place of compromise between these two contradictory attitudes.

So ask your characters questions. If they give you canned answers, or if they don't want to talk, find out why. Make them open up to you. Read your characters' diaries. (I won't tell on you!) In life, prying into a person's secret inner world might be a no-no, but in creating authentic characters, it's essential. Your readers will be thrilled that you did.


Idea Generation

Where do you find your ideas?

This can be a difficult question to answer, since usually, an idea seems to come out of nowhere. One day you're driving in your car or taking a shower and BAM! An idea hits you. Some of us even wake up in the middle of the night and have to grope for a pen on the bedside table to jot down the idea that came to us in our sleep.

All of this would seem to imply that we as writers have no control over our ideas. I disagree. These ideas, I would argue, are the product of a subconscious mind that has been "trained" to act as an "idea generating machine."

Here are five suggestions to prime your mind to subconsciously formulate story ideas:

1. Always ask "what if"? You may have heard never to open a query letter with a hypothetical question - and I heartily agree with this advice - but that shouldn't mean that hypotheticals are useless to writers. Most of us think this way already. If it rains for three days straight, we say, "Imagine if this were snow!" If it starts to storm, we say, "Imagine if you had to leave on a flight on a day like today!"
Since most of us already think this way, I'm simply suggesting you take your questions a bit further, depending upon your genre, of course. You may ask yourself, "What if it never stopped raining ever again?" or "What if the rain that fell was acid and destroyed everything it touched?" You may think of the flight taking off in a storm and ask, "What if two long separated lovers were seated next to each other in a jet taking off in horribly bad weather?" or "What if lightning hit an engine just as a hijacker was storming the cockpit?"
Just pushing your "what ifs" a bit further will jump start your imagination.

2. Never accept that there is only one solution to a problem. If you have to pick up Joannie from cheerleading and Rebecca from field hockey, and they are ten minutes apart and you have only five minutes to make the trip, you can probably figure out at least one solution. Maybe Joannie catches a ride with another family. There's a solution, so the problem is solved. But as a writer, I suggest you train yourself to come up with a few extra solutions. Rebecca could walk to the local library and wait there. Joannie could ride her bike to practice so that you only need to worry about Rebecca. By looking for multiple solutions to problems, your brain acquires the habit of thinking creatively.

3. Ask questions like a child. I remember when my son was small he would ask questions all the time. "How does an antenna work?" "Why do fluorescent lights make my skin look blue?" "How does the TV find the right show when you change the channel?" I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I had to answer, "Go ask Dad." Shouldn't a grown woman know how an antenna works? And if she doesn't, shouldn't she be anxious to find out the answer? Unfortunately, as we get older, we let the day-to-day questions, "How am I ever going to pay the cell phone bill?" crowd out the questions that lead to much more creative thinking.

4. Read widely. While it's important to read in the genre you write, you should also be reading fiction you don't write, as well as magazine articles, the newspaper, travel stories, or science journals. Recently, while the miners were trapped, I developed a voracious interest in Chile, and tried to learn as much as I could about this country I'd rarely thought about before. Not long before that, a photo on a magazine cover spawned a frenzy of research into Machu Picchu. To date, I've never used anything I've learned about Chile or Machu Picchu in any of my fiction, but it has helped train my mind to imagine different environments, and the lives of the people who live there.

5. Think like a "social anthropologist." The best way I can explain what I mean by this it to tell you about a recent experience of having my car towed in Philadelphia. Finding my car missing from the place I had parked it started a series of events, each one more frustrating and inconvenient than the last. Hours later, my husband and I found ourselves in a neighborhood I most likely never would have wandered into, trying to negotiate with a very unreasonable man through a window so darkly tinted as to make it impossible to see his face. He directed us to a corner auto tags service - a tiny room where the none-stop sale of lottery tickets appeared to be the only purpose of the business. Once we managed to find someone who spoke enough English to understand what we needed, we were able to have proof of insurance faxed to the establishment so that we could then return to the rudest man in Philadelphia, talk to him through his bullet-proof tinted glass, and finally, claim our vehicle.
You may be wondering what this has to do with anthropology. Good question! After all, this experience was far from educational. Yet, it did introduce me to people, places, manners, and routines that are outside my typical life experiences. Through it all, I tried to make a mental image of the landscape, the behaviors, and the expectations that were unique to this particular situation. For that afternoon, I was a "social anthropologist."

As a writer, I'm sure you know that your mind is working on a subconscious level all the time, even while you sleep. Tell your subconscious that you want it to come up with new ideas and premises for you. Teach it as many creative thinking techniques as you can. Then, just get out of its way.

Do you have unique methods for generating ideas? Do you already practice any of these habits? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.


Welcome to Julie Eshbaugh's new home on the web!

Welcome! I'm so excited to be launching a new blog in combination with newly offered editing services. If you're not familiar with me, please click the bio tab above. I look forward to getting to know a great group of writers through this new blog. :)