Chekhov’s Razor: trimming the fat off your story Reply

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest of all short story writers, said ‘I think I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end.’

For Christmas I got an electric razor. It really has changed my life. This is my razor. But this is Chekhov’s razor.

Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest of all short story writers, said ‘I think I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end.’

He’s talking about the exposition at the start of a story and the resolution at the end. These bits. As Ursula le Guin put is:

‘There are few first drafts to which Chekov’s Razor doesn’t apply. Starting a story, we all tend to circle around, explain a lot of stuff, set things up that don’t need to be set up. Then we find our way and get going and the story begins… very often just about on page three.’

In terms of starting your story, writing prose is very different from writing for film or theatre. In most films and plays, the action that takes place in the opening minutes probably has little or nothing to do with the main plot. This is because people come into films late, or they’re busy arranging their jackets and popcorn, or they’re too busy working out whether they fancy the guy sitting to their left. If you give them key plot information in those opening minutes then they might miss it. In any case, they’ve paid for their tickets and they’re unlikely to walk out if it transpires that the opening action goes nowhere.

In contrast, when you’re writing prose, there’s rarely space for a preamble, or for a distracting opening episode. And the exposition, the setup of the stasis, life as it was before the inciting incident – all that has to be reduced or cut completely. For instance, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story ‘Where is Here’ is the tale of what happens when a stranger visits a family home. The opening stasis and inciting incident are presented within the first sentence:

“For years they had lived without incident in their house in a quiet residential neighbourhood when, one November evening at dusk, the doorbell rang, and the father went to answer it, and there on his doorstep stood a man he had never seen before.”

Chekhov’s advice was intended to instruct us when writing short stories, but it can be applied equally to writing novels. Where in Les Miserables Victor Hugo spends tens of thousands of words introducing a bishop who isn’t even the protagonist, modern authors can’t expect such patience from their readers. If you want to keep your readers, you probably need to get the story started as soon as possible. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road doesn’t begin with the father meeting his wife, or with their son being born, or even with the mother dying or whatever ecological or military crisis has destroyed civilisation; it begins after the inciting incident has disrupted the stasis. Its opening line is:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail for this video is a photograph by Barney Bishop. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of Bishop’s work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/barneyabishop/)

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