Writers, have you fired “Chekhov’s Gun”?

I’ve got a special treat for you today. My dear friend Anne R. Allen is here! If you’re not following her blog, you should remedy that immediately. It’s a must-read for all writers.

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So okay, what the heck is “Chekhov’s gun?”

It’s a reference to advice the great Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, (1860-1904) gave young writers:

“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.”

In other words, he says we shouldn’t clutter the story with things that have no relevance. If chapter one says your heroine won a bunch of trophies for javelin throwing, which she displays prominently on the wall alongside a javelin once thrown by Uwe Hohn, somebody had better darn well throw a javelin before the story is done.

Setting Details vs. Chekhov’s Gun

Yeah, but what if that javelin is there to show us what her apartment looks like? It’s good to show her décor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends. Yes, it’s good to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters.

But what’s all important is how you stress those details when you first present them. If there’s a whole page about those javelin throwing trophies, and the characters have a conversation about whether anyone will ever break Uwe Hohn’s throw record of 104.80 meters, you gotta toss some javelins. But if there’s just a cursory mention, “her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and long spears,” then you can leave them on the wall.

In other words, not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What, No Red Herrings?

Wait just a goldern minute, sez you. I write mysteries! Mysteries need to have irrelevant clues and red herrings. Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true. But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings. If the deceased met his demise via long pointy spear-thing, probably thrown from a considerable distance, then your sleuth is going to look like a very viable suspect to the local constabulary.

But of course she didn’t do it because she’s our hero, so the javelin on the wall and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be “fired.” Maybe not like Chekhov’s gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with. Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to “borrow” the Hwe Hohn javelin, but he couldn’t get it into his Kia, so in the end he used a shorter, more modern javelin…

Chekhov’s Gun and Subplots

I’ve been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately: I find myself flipping through whole chapters that have nothing to do with the main story. That’s because the subplot isn’t hooked in with the main plot. It’s just hanging there, not furthering the action.

The subplot becomes the unfired Chekhov’s gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapters of police academy training after the discovery of the body. The mysterious murder wasn’t even mentioned for a good six chapters. I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn’t. None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn’t even make an appearance. He’d already gone off with a hotter fellow recruit.

It’s fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery — in fact, that’s my favorite kind. But the romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.

But if that romance doesn’t trigger a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it’s an unfired gun on the wall. It’s just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov’s Gun.

Another “unfired Chekhov’s gun” situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and, um, “spear-carriers.”

You don’t want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname “Spear” followed by two paragraphs about his javelin-throwing expertise — unless he’s going to reappear later in the story. And he’d better be doing something more javelin-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction. In creative writing courses we’re taught to make every character vivid and alive. So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make them memorable. You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don’t give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear, or be involved with the plot or subplot, don’t give him a name. Just call him “the pizza guy” or “the Uber driver” or “the barista.”

A named character becomes a Chekhov’s gun. The reader will expect that character to come back and do something related to the plot.

Beware Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis. That’s when the author did a heckuva lot of research and goldernit, they’re going to tell you every single fact they dug up.

You’ll get three chapters on the historical significance of the javelin in Olympic competitions, going back to ancient Greece. And the popularity of depictions of javelin throwers in Hellenistic art. And how both Zeus and Poseidon are depicted throwing their thunderbolts and tridents like javelins…

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the back yard with the big pointy spear in his back.

If the reader doesn’t need to know it to solve the mystery and it’s not a red herring, keep it to yourself.

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you’re marketing the book, so don’t delete any of those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov’s Gun Off Your Wall

It’s tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.

You’re sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college javelin team where her nemesis, Rosalie Rich, once stole her glasses before a meet…and she found out she could throw better without them and didn’t need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Lance Spears noticed her for the first time. He turned out to be a creep, but…

Your editor will disagree. And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.

Have you ever left a Chekhov’s gun on the wall? Are you annoyed when you find them in published books? What’s the worst Chekhov’s gun mistake you’ve found in fiction? 

Anne R. Allen is a popular blogger and the author of the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries as well as the Boomer Women Trilogy and the anthology Why Grandma Bought that Car (Kotu Beach Press.) Her most recent mystery is Catfishing in America (Thalia Press) a comic look at romance scams. Her mystery The Gatsby Game is being published in French at the end of this month. Anne’s nonfiction guide, The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, is an Amazon #1 bestseller that was named one of the 101 Best Blogging Books of All Time by Book Authority.  She’s also the co-author, with Catherine Ryan Hyde, of the writer’s guide How to Be a Writer in the E-Age. She blogs with NYT million-copy seller, Ruth Harris, at “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.” You can find them at annerallen.com.

Don’t miss Anne’s new release! CATFISHING IN AMERICA is a mashup of mystery, romcom, and satire.

First Page Critique – Finding Grace

By Debbie Burke


Today we welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for discussion. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss it. 

Finding Grace

In a few hours, the airwaves would crackle with breaking news, and the stories would all lead with the same headline Edward Sika-Nartey was staring at. WHISTLE-BLOWER BOMBSHELL. DENAQUIN CLINICAL TRIAL DATA FALSIFIED. TWELVE DEATHS UNDER INVESTIGATION.

Edward flung the three-inch-thick report on his desk and gripped the back of his chair with both hands. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“Is it?” Stanley Adjei crossed his legs and brushed a piece of lint off his trousers.

“People have died.”

“People may have died,” Stanley said. “There’s no definitive proof that Denaquin caused these deaths.”

Edward stared at his godfather and L&N’s vice-chairman with folded brows. There was not a single wrinkle in the man’s suit. The collar of his white shirt was as pristine as when he’d stepped into the office the previous morning. If Edward hadn’t been stuck there with him, he wouldn’t have believed Stanley had spent the last eighteen hours in the office.

Edward walked around his chair and leaned his elbows down on his desk. “Thirty percent. That’s how much JP shares have fallen in two days. My source at the FDA says the director is calling a press conference later today. God knows what he’s going to say. This is a disaster.”

“We didn’t work late into the night for nothing, Edward. We knew this was coming.”

“My point is, you don’t look worried at all. It’s like we read two different reports. There’s talk of deaths. That’s very concerning.”

“Concerning, yes. But for Offet Johnson.” Stanley uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “Look, this is an unsubstantiated report from a fanatical private watchdog. The FDA will do its own investigation.”

“And if it comes to the same conclusion?”

“I don’t want to sound crude. Like you said, people may have died. But a corroborating report by the FDA would put us in an even stronger position.”

“Is the takeover under threat?”

“You’re worried about the board, I understand. But you shouldn’t. The market is already reacting. Trust me, sooner rather than later, Offet Johnson’s going to concede.”

“You’re more confident than I am.”

“Oh, he’s as stubborn as they come. But he will have no other choice.”

Edward pursed his lips and nodded. Stanley was right, as always. Perhaps this drawn-out battle with JP was finally coming to an end. The report, scandalous as it read, could only help L&N’s attempt to acquire Johnson Pharmaceuticals. It certainly couldn’t hurt. The messier Offet Johnson’s reign looked, the more eager JP’s board would be to cast aside their loyalties.


Brave Author, thanks for submitting a professional first page with clean, clear writing, free of typos and grammatical errors.

The title, Finding Grace, is intriguing because it raises curiosity in the reader’s mind about different possible interpretations.

Is the story a search to find an actual person? Who is Grace? Why is she missing?

Or does this refer to seeking a state of grace? A quest for redemption?

A title that prompts a reader to ask questions is a good start.

However, starting a story by talking about an event that would happen in several hours is not a strong hook.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Are these the right characters to introduce the story?
  2. Is this scene the right place to begin the story?

Edward and Stanley are executives in high positions at a corporation that is trying to take over a pharmaceutical company that apparently falsified drug trials and caused deaths.

I’m not against opening in a villain’s POV and have done it in my own books.

But, to hook the reader, negative characters must be strong and compelling. Here’s what we know so far about Stanley and Edward.

Stanley is indifferent and without a conscience. After spending the night at the office, his clothing is still pristine except for a bit of lint. BA does a good job of showing that he is physically and mentally untouched by the plight of the dead victims of the drug. The reader instantly dislikes him.

The POV character Edward seems slightly less callous. He at least recognizes the deaths are worth worrying about, even though his consideration is how they affect the stock price.

Two greedy executives are not distinctive or memorable.

A recent post by Anne R. Allen talks about the trend of unlikable characters in books and films. Anne says:

“I’m bored by stories where everybody is horrible and there’s nobody to root for. I want a story to have a hero — an actual protagonist that I can care about.”

I respect Anne a lot and believe her comment is worth considering, especially when crafting the all-important first page.

Second question: is this scene the right place to begin? Let’s examine the conflict.

Two companies, L&N and JP, are involved in hostile takeover. If stock prices sink, Offet Johnson, who’s presumably the owner of Johnson Pharmaceuticals, will look bad, making the takeover easier for L&N.

At this point, the reader already doesn’t like Edward and Stanley and doesn’t know Offet. Who cares if his company fails?

In fiction, a corporate merger isn’t going to grab most readers. They want characters with heart–even if the heart is evil.   

Below are some ideas on how to approach this story from different angles.

What if the protagonist is the whistle-blower? That evokes a much different reaction than cold executives. The first scene could introduce a protagonist with a goal of exposing false records and deaths that resulted.

The conflict and theme are immediately clear—whistle-blower David vs. corporate Goliath. That’s much more likely to capture readers.

Another option is to keep Edward and Stanley but have them talk about the whistle-blower. The reader becomes a fly on the wall, hearing what the enemies think about the hero and what plans they make to vanquish him/her. Here’s an example:

“Look,” Stanley said, “this is an unsubstantiated report from a fanatical private watchdog.”

Edward slapped the report. “Jane Q. Public already forced XYZ Corporation into bankruptcy because of unsafe working conditions. We shouldn’t underestimate her influence. She has to be discredited.”

The whistle-blower-protagonist is now on a clear collision course with the callous executives. That raises the reader’s curiosity and encourages them to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next.

Another alternative is to put the focus on the victims of the drug. What if the main character is a surviving family member, seeking revenge or justice for a loved one’s wrongful death. Here’s an example that leads with the headline:


Edward Sika-Nartey flung the three-inch-thick report on his desk and gripped the back of his chair with both hands. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“Is it?” Stanley Adjei crossed his legs and brushed a piece of lint off his trousers.

“People have died.”

“People may have died,” Stanley said. “There’s no definitive proof that Denaquin caused these deaths.”

“That won’t matter once this whistle-blower’s report hits the media.” Edward flipped open the binder to a tabbed page and read out loud, “‘Joan Johnson, brain hemorrhage, age thirty-two. Mona Riley, brain hemorrhage, age twenty-seven. William Washington, brain hemorrhage, age sixteen.’” He slapped the binder shut and glared at his godfather. “How can you be so cavalier?”

There are a couple of minor wordsmithing issues:

What are “folded brows”?

“Edward walked around his chair and leaned his elbows down on his desk.” Assuming the desk is normal height (rather than a stand-up desk), this seems to be an awkward position. Is Edward really bending at the hips and leaning over that far?

Brave Author, thank you for submitting. Your writing is very good and there is the promise of a compelling plot that will unfold eventually. I just don’t believe the best way to kick off your story is with these particular characters and this particular scene.


TKZers: any ideas and suggestions for the Brave Author?

Social Media Etiquette: 15 Dos and Don’ts for Authors

by Anne R. Allen

Note from Jodie: I’m just heading home from presenting at Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival all weekend (2 workshops, panel, blue pencil sessions), so humorous author and award-winning blogger AAnne Allen_e-agenne R. Allen has graced us with her wit and wisdom today. Take it away, Anne!

Thanks, Jodie. It’s a pleasure to be a guest on TKZ.

“Authors behaving badly” tends to be a hot topic on booky forums and blogs these days. A lot of people blame the indie movement, but some of the worst social media behavior I’ve seen comes from traditionally published authors who are following the dictates of their marketing departments.

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers seem to have studied their craft at the “let’s cold-call random strangers just as they sit down to dinner” school of salesmanship.

As a general rule, I feel if someone has the social graces of a rabid squirrel, he’s probably not the guy to listen to on the subject of winning friends and influencing people—which is what social media is all about.

We need to keep in mind that social media isn’t about numbers, no matter how numbers-oriented your marketing department squirrels are. Social media is about making actual friends, not about mass-“friending” a horde of random strangers.

You’ll make a lot more real friends and sell a lot more books in the long run if you heed the following dos and don’ts.

1) DO remember Tweets are casual: Never tweet a query—not to an agent, reviewer, blogger or editor.

2) DON’T post advertising on anybody’s Facebook “wall.”  A person’s wall is how they present themselves to the world. When you plaster the cover of your book on their timeline you seriously mess with their brand.

Posting on somebody’s wall is like putting a sign in the front window of their house. Don’t do it without permission. This is true for pleas to sign petitions or donate to charities, no matter how worthy the cause.

3) DO use social media to interact with people, not to broadcast a never-ending stream of “buy my book” messages.

People whose Twitter stream is the identical promo tweet over and over look like robots with OCD. They will only get followed by other compulsive robots.

Twitter is a place to give congrats to a newly agented writer here or a contest winner there. It’s a wonderful vehicle for getting quick answers to questions. Or to commiserate when you’ve had a disappointment. Or if you’ve found a great book you love, tweet it.

Social Media is a party, not a telemarketing boiler room.

4) DON’T put somebody on an email list who didn’t sign up for it. ONLY send newsletters to people you have a personal connection with, or who have specifically asked to be on your list. Lifting email addresses from blog commenters without permission is considered especially heinous. Cue Law and Order music…

5) DO use Direct Messages sparingly. And never automate DMs. Private messages are for personal exchanges with people you have a legitimate connection with—not for advertising or begging for money. The fact somebody has followed or friended you back doesn’t give you license to send them advertising through a private message. This is especially true with “thank you for the follow” messages that come with a demand to “like” your author page, visit your blog and buy your products.

6) DON’T forget to check your @ messages on Twitter several times a day and respond to them. It only takes a moment, but those are people reaching out to you. Ignoring them will negate what you’re doing on Twitter in the first place.

 7) DO change the Facebook default “email” address to your actual email address. You are on social media to connect with people. Post a reliable way to connect—which that Facebook address isn’t.

8) DON’T forget to check your “Other” Folder on Facebook regularly. People who want to contact you for legitimate reasons may contact you through a Direct Message, but if they’re not on your “friend” list, the message goes into your “other” file.

A lot of FB users don’t even know it’s there.

If you’ve never heard of it, go to your home page and click on the message button on the left side of the toolbar (It’s the one in the middle, between friend requests and notifications.) They’re semi-invisible if you don’t have anything pending, so if it’s all blank up on the left side of that blue toolbar at the top of the page, move your mouse slightly to the right of the Facebook logo in white and click around.

Mostly your “Other” file will be full of spam and hilarious messages from guys with poor language skills who think Facebook is a dating site. But nestled in there you may find a note from a fan or a fellow author who wants to co-promote or is asking you to join a blog hop or something useful. So do check it once a week or so.

9)  DO post links to your website on all your social media sites. And have your contact info readily accessible on your site! Being paranoid on social media makes your presence pointless. Even if you’re on the lam, incarcerated, and/or in the Witness Protection Program, you need to be reachable if you want a career. Use a pen name and get a dedicated email address where you can be reached at that Starbucks in Belize. 

10) DON’T “tag” somebody unless they’re actually in the picture. This is an unpleasant way some writers try to get people to notice their book or Facebook page. They’ll post their book cover or some related photo (or worse, porn) and “tag” 50 random people so they’ll all get a notification.

But here’s the thing: a tag means a person is in the photo. Full stop. Yes, you may get a person’s attention with this—but not in a good way. Remember you’re trying to get people to like you, not wish for you to get run over by a truck.

11) DO Network with other writers in your genre. Joining up with other authors to share fans and marketing is one of the reasons you’re on social media. You’re not here to sell to other authors, but you are here to pool your resources.

12) DON’T thank people for a follow, especially on Twitter. It may seem like bad manners, but the truth is most people on Twitter and FB would prefer you DON’T thank them for a follow. That’s because those thank-yous have become 99% spam. If your inner great aunt won’t let you rest without sending a thank-you note for every follow, send it in an @ tweet.

If you actually want to show gratitude, retweet one of their tweets. Then maybe they’ll thank YOU and you can get a conversation going. 

13) DO talk about stuff other than your book. Yes, we’re all here because we want to sell books, but social media is not about direct sales. It’s about getting to know people who might help you make a sale sometime in the future. Consider it a Hollywood cocktail party. You don’t launch into your audition piece every time you’re introduced to a film executive. You schmooze. You tell them how great their last picture was. You find them a refill on the champagne. You get them to LIKE you. Then you might get asked to audition in an appropriate place.

14) DO Read the directions. If you’re invited to join a group, and you’re instructed to put links to your books only in certain threads, do so.  Anything else will be treated as spam and you could get kicked out of the group. And don’t dominate any site with your personal promos, even if it isn’t expressly forbidden in the rules. Taking more than your share of space is rude. People don’t like rude.

15) DON’T ever respond to a negative review or disrespect a reviewer online.

  • Not in the Amazon or Goodreads comments.
  • Not on your Facebook page
  • Not on their blog.
  • Or yours.

And especially don’t Tweet it.

If you get a nasty, unkind review, step away from the keyboard. Go find chocolate. And/or wine. Call your BFF. Cry. Throw things. Do NOT turn on your computer until you’re over it. Except maybe to see these scathing reviews of great authors. Getting a bad review means you’ve joined a pretty impressive club.

If you break this rule, you can face serious consequences. So many authors have behaved badly in the past that Amazon has sprouted a vigilante brigade that can do severe damage to your career if you get on their poop list.

In my forthcoming mystery novel, SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5, an author breaks this rule and ends up being terrorized—online and off—with death and rape threats, destruction of her business, hacking her accounts, and other horrors.

This isn’t so farfetched. I know authors who have gone through this, for much smaller offenses than my heroine. There are some terrifying vigilantes in the book world who don’t just fight fire with fire. They fight a glow-stick with a nuclear bomb.

So ignore these rules at your peril, or you could be designated a “Badly Behaving Author” and become another of their victims.

What about you? Have you been making any of these faux pas? (I’m not going to claim I haven’t. We were all newbies once.) Do you have any funny “Other” folder encounters you want to share? Any do’s and don’ts of your own would you’d like to add? 

Anne R. Allen is an award-winning blogger and the author of eight comic novels Anne Allen_ARA roseincluding the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries, plus a collection of short fiction and poetry. She’s also co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.