Chekhov’s Gun and Red Herrings: Meaning, Rules, and Transgression in Storytelling

I.

“If I think of somebody telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them a vast space, quite frightening.”  — John Berger

It’s probably important to start off by quickly distinguishing  between a “story” and “literature,” at least in a way that is, if not universally true, at least instrumentally valuable. Literary works often include one or more stories — did, almost always, until the twentieth century — which are used as starting points to launch all sorts of philosophical investigations into language, morals, structure, society, politics, and human behavior. Storytelling meanwhile (which will be the focus of this essay) refers to that tradition passed down from campfires and Aesop and early human history, where plot is the dominant element and engagement the primary end. Parable can occur too but is secondary, something that happens along the way or is woven in the with the narrative. The relationship between storytelling and literature then, at least as conceived here, is a spectrum between plot-driven and idea-driven texts, where the each tradition prioritizes one end more than the other. Some might simplify the narrative end of “engagement” to “entertainment,” but this strikes me as reductive — the Berger quote above illustrates a way in which engaging storytelling builds almost an abstract shelter for early man, an inner space in which structure engenders a desirable sensation of safety, predictability, and teleological meaning far removed from some “frightening,” meaningless, and ostensibly chaotic outer world.

Good storytelling is certainly an art, and all art forms develop principles or rules which, when followed, improve an artist’s odds of making a meaningful product. Art is consequentialist in this way — it isn’t an adherence to the rules itself which makes good art, it’s just that certain techniques, approaches, or decisions lend themselves to higher rates of artistic success. Chekhov’s Gun is one such narrative principle, a piece of advice popularized by the playwright Anton Chekhov, which counsels that all notable objects or details in a story should somehow contribute to its plot: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This is arguably part of a larger principle of compressed or economic storytelling, where every event, character — basically every word and paragraph — goes to work in some meaningful, valuable, and irreplaceable way in developing a narrative or else keeping the reader engaged. In a broad sense, even elements like character development are merely means towards shuttling the reader from the first to last page of a story:

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