Showing The Rifle

Like anyone who has spewed forth a book, I’m occasionally asked what the toughest thing is about writing. I’ll mumble something about the difficulty of making time to write when you have a full-time job and family, or trying to write when you’re not inspired, or something equally cliché.

But I’m lying. I don’t want to talk about it, but one thing that is BY FAR the hardest thing to do, even now that I’m closing in on the end of my third book.

Knowing how to show the rifle.

You probably recognize the phrase. Playwright Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you show a rifle hanging over the mantle in Act I it had better go off in Act III or you shouldn’t mention it.

Chekhov was referring to the importance of keeping extraneous detail out of your writing. If something doesn’t serve a distinct purpose to plot or characterization, chop it out. Great advice.

But for me, “showing the rifle” is more about burying the clues that the protagonist uses to solve the mystery the book is about. Because what you want to do is show the rifle in Act I, sure, but do it in such a way that when the gun goes off in Act III, it’s a complete and utter surprise to the reader.

For my money, the hardest trick in literature.

I’m a pretty easy audience. I’ll put up with wooden characters, familiar scenes, trite dialogue. As long as the story is moving at a good clip, I’m happy. But the second the detective suddenly produces a clue that was conveniently not mentioned when she first “noticed” it, or pulls some piece of arcane knowledge out of thin air, I’m out.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. There are few things more irritating than reading a setup that is so obvious it might as well be highlighted, then spending the rest of the book waiting for the “big reveal” on page 277 that you saw in Chapter 3.

So I obsess over the rifle.

It’s nerve-wracking. You painstakingly plant clue after clue, then scuff just enough metaphorical dirt over each one, hoping they go unnoticed. Because to you there’s a big, red arrow pointing at each one that screams “LOOK, LOOK! SETUP FOR THE END OF THE BOOK HERE! RIGHT HERE! HE’S GOING TO REFER TO THIS LATER DURING HIS *SHOCKING* PLOT TWIST! BE WARNED!”

Move along, nothing to see here. Not an important plot point, I promise.

Fortunately, to this point, no reader of mine has ever said anything about the big red arrow. In fact, I have even occasionally received what I consider the absolute highest praise a plot-driven author can receive:

“I totally did not suspect the twist at the end!” 

There is no rifle in the Traveler books. At least, not yet. But if I put one in, it will definitely go off. And if it’s still a surprise after I telegraphed it for you just now, I’ll take that as a compliment.

Parts of the preceding originally appeared on the blog of one my literary heroes, Ed Gorman. Ed passed away in October 2016. But you can still read some of his final musings, as well as those of guests and friends at newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com.

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