Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Chocolate Lava Cake

Every once in a while I'll read a piece of fiction and recognize in it a writer's technique that I didn't (couldn't?) recognize before.

Recently, I decided to read through a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, mostly due to this guy, and pay more attention to what makes Chekhov so influential.

As I read, I asked myself what made him different from other writers I admired and how his stories were different from my own. Several characteristics came up, including his impressively large portfolio of well-rendered and diverse characters and his wide range of endings with different emotional impacts and twists.

Another thing I noticed was how much character information Chekhov puts up front. In the last couple of days, I've read about a dozen of his stories, and in all of them the opening paragraphs are almost entirely focused on characterization. Many of the stories start with a character's name and go on to describe who he or she is. The stories may well start in the middle of action, but Chekhov slows the action down to get all of this information in.

This technique accomplishes a few things.

First, I think this creates more excitement for readers, as they have more information on which to see potential outcomes. They have more data and can guess at the results. I think this engages their imaginations and can create a different form of suspence.

Second, I think readers may have more of an emotional investment in the character because they know the character. It's the difference between seeing a friend versus a stranger getting hit by a car.

Third, this technique creates something that I think of as momentum. The confrontation of character to conflict is presented up front, and now the rest of the story just has to unfold. This is different from a situation where the character is still being revealed, in which case the journey of the story is a combination of both information gathering and outcome. When a character is slowly revealed, the tension comes in the form of questions about the character. When the character is revealed more quickly, the tension comes in the form of "How does life unfold?"

I don't know yet if I like this style of writing more than other styles, but it's an intriguing one. And I think I'll be rewriting some of my stories with this in mind to see how that changes the reading experience.

What's Peanut eating? Salmon and carrots.


  1. Chekhov? I'll have to read some of his stories.

  2. Okay, just kidding with the dumb comment. Have you read any of the longer stories? The Steppe is amazing; it has no "story question" and not problem to be solved by the protagonist. The Duel is like all of Tolstoy reduced to 100 pages. A Dreary Story is one of the best things anyone has ever written; it's nothing but characterization. The Constance Garnett translations of these are all available online. The Lady With the Little Dog is excellent, too. They are all excellent, and you never know what direction the story will take. You've read The House with the Mezzanine, haven't you? The little daughter comes out of nowhere and completely transforms the story. Brilliant stuff. But you are right that Chekhov's characters are what is so strong, and that how life unfolds is what Chekhov is getting at. That's a great way of putting it.

    1. Scott, I've read "The Lady With The Little Dog" probably half a dozen times. I think my problem with Chekhov came from not reading more of his work. I have only read a couple of his more famous stories, albeit several times each. His talent is much more obvious when you look at the scope of what he has done...although I'll have to wait and see if he topped Tolstoy so easily!

  3. With so much emphasis these days put on action and showing more than telling all up front, this shows us something powerful, I think. It's truly in the hands of the storyteller more than it is in the idea of the technique, which is possibly going against what you're saying here? I'm not sure, but I do know I like the "slowing down" with character and storytelling more and more in the stories I read and write these days.

    1. Hi Michelle, I'm not sure I'm quite understanding what you mean about the storyteller versus the technique. Can you elaborate?

      I too have been enjoying some slower paced writing lately. Maybe it's because life is too hectic!

  4. Chekhov got so immediately to character by throwing away the first part of the story after he wrote it, and he was able to have those abrupt indeterminate endings by throwing away the last part of the story after he wrote it. He said that a writer should delete the beginnings and endings of their stories, because those are the places where the writer tells the most lies. What's left behind, the middle, is closer to the truth.