If you really study the techniques that we proffer then heck, if this bschool thing doesn’t work out, maybe you can become a screenwriter!
We recently talked about Star Wars and Top Gun and today we’re going to tell you about Chekhov’s gun .
We often say “Every word counts” which is true but maybe not that easy to appreciate.
The principle behind Chekhov’s gun is this:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
We’ll rewrite it as this:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the essay. If you say in the first sentence that you grew up a small town in the Midwest, in the second or third sentence it absolutely must be discussed in a meaningful way to show why that matters to who you are now. If it’s not going to be used, it shouldn’t be mentioned.”
Everything in the essay needs to be directly about YOU.
Not indirectly about you.
It’s similar to what we blahgged about here on mentioning family members and their small businesses.
Everything you say in the essay needs to pass the “So what?” test.
Read a sentence.
Ask yourself, “So what?”
If the next sentence or the one thereafter gives the meaning and significance, great! Or if the sentence can stand on its own two feet, even better.
But if the sentence is a throwaway — or what we sometimes call a drive-by — then it’s not helping you convey who you are.
We need connections made.
Another way to reference Chekov’s gun is “establish, then use.”
Meaning: Establish the fact. State clearly what the key part of your background or upbringing that you feel is unique or you know has been important in who you are now.
Then, use it. Now that the reader knows this about you, explain why it’s important. Draw out meaning and significance through a mini-discussion. Give additional context; offer an insight. Something like, “I didn’t appreciate the value of this until last year when…” Or, “I realized when I was faced with blah blah blah that because of that event in my childhood, I….”
We have plenty of posts on the blahg that offer these seemingly esoteric, but actually more sophisticated, techniques and tools to make your essays tight and sharp. Like those six-pack abs you’re trying for in the gym.
Six-pack essays. That’s what you want baby.
Keep exploring the blahg — there’s gold in them depths!
Like here’s one: This post from the ‘snarchives captures our dramatized reaction and red flags about unintended messaging in response to a BSer’s idea for a long-ago Haas essay asking about music.
Or start digging through the writing tips and writing essays categories. And of course the perennial-important show, don’t tell.
Chekov’s gun is not a show, don’t tell tip, but it’s just as useful when you understand its value in capturing significance on the page — and in not wasting words! If you are able to recognize that you’ve got a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter 1 that never gets fired anywhere in the story, then guess what? You can ditch the gun! And thus have more words for something meaningful. And thereby have a more compact essay, with more meaning conveyed within it.
Yes there’s a lot to remember. Much of the advice we’re talking about here on the blahg won’t make that much sense until after you’ve wrestled through a draft or two of your essays. Then that’s when the lightbulbs will start to click on for you.
You’re learning new skills! And this is not how most people do things. But this is your opportunity to go way beyond what most people do, and write essays that shine.
Tell us what you think.