Writing Advice From Anton Chekhov: Part One – Scenery

The five best writers who have ever lived (as I see things) are William Shakespeare, Homer, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. To me, these men show the skill of excellent writing to a much more advanced degree than any others.

Now name three works of each of these men, two for Homer. I believe most people, especially those more bookish, could do that with four of the five men. But I fear that even well-read folk could not even name one work of Chekhov’s. I can’t explain why his catalogue is not more familiar, even though he has the name recognition. The next few articles will take quotes from some of his private correspondence, now published, and particularly his advice on writing. It has done me a world of good, and I hope every writer takes these things to heart.

The Unfired Gun

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.”

Chekhov is classified as a Minimalist, and is an expert in that sphere. Along with Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, Chekhov is one of my favorite minimalist writers.

I fear Minimalism has a bad reputation. It’s falsely thought of as being sparse. But the truth is all good writing is Minimal writing. Nothing goes into a story that does not belong. Anything else is purple prose, the darlings that must be murdered.

A True Description Of Nature

In my opin­ion a true descrip­tion of nature should be very brief and have the char­ac­ter of rel­e­vance. Com­mon­places such as ‘the set­ting sun bathed the waves of the dark­en­ing sea, poured its pur­ple gold, etc.’ — ‘the swal­lows fly­ing over the sur­face of the water tit­tered merrily’ — such com­mon­places one ought to aban­don. In descrip­tions of nature one ought to seize upon the lit­tle par­tic­u­lars, group­ing them in such a way that, in read­ing, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.”

Scenery and environment, along with weather, the layout of a room, the appearance of a house, may be seen vividly in the mind of the writer. There is the temptation to cheat and fill the text with descriptions of these details. Such writing becomes the dark and stormy night that is typical of bad writing.

Let your reader fill in as many blanks as possible when it comes to physical details. They want to anyway. And such unnecessary details when provided by the author become a literary Hamburger Helper there only to stretch out prose and pad the word count. Give these details when they are part of the story, and this means sub-text.

The Full Moon

For instance you will get the full effect of a moon­lit night if you write that on the mill­dam, a lit­tle glow­ing star­point flashed from the neck of a bro­ken bot­tle, and the round black shadow of a dog or a wolf emerged and ran, etc….”

Chekhov and I would cringe at reading someone tell us that the moon was full. His advice was to instead have that full moon perform some action, as with his example in his quote. And again, this gleaming moonlight is never a superfluous point. It is noted only as it genuinely contributes to the story telling.

For example, I set my first novel in the fall, October to be specific, and one week in October to be even more specific. Do I say it’s fall or October? No, I describe two fallen leaves blowing across the porch just as the main character and his brother-in-law agree to some misdemeanorous contract. One blows against the brother-in-law’s shoe and the over blows over it and the main hero steps on it. I’ve told you it’s fall and gave a scene with action that is also a portend of how the hero with betray his brother-in-law. This is how subtleties in the details of physical descriptions cam ne be used as a story telling tool.

Chekhov wrote many letters and gave enough writing advice in them to fill up a book. These are just a few. We will see some more in the next two articles. I hope these are useful to you the writer. If you find them so, please Share them with others. And let me know what you think in the Comment section.

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4 Comments

Filed under Creative Writing

4 responses to “Writing Advice From Anton Chekhov: Part One – Scenery

  1. Welcome back, Neal. This post helped me a great deal; at least twelve chapters of my yet-unagented novels clamored in agreement or more often, in defensive scorn. I will apply your lessons even if my prose shrinks into a ball and sticks out its quills.

    My issue is with modern-day classics like Jonathan Franzen and Don DiLillo. Especially with Franzen, I think that the book could take 2/3 or fewer pages than it does. I’m reading Underworld by DiLillo, and it seems that the opening section that sets J. Edgar Hoover and Cotter in the same stadium (The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!) shouldn’t take sixty pages. Do we really need about a thousand words about the contents and process of Jackie Gleason’s projectile vomit? Or five pages about Cotter stealing(?) the baseball that won the game? Why do we consider this one of the turn-of-the-century masterpieces?

    I would SO love your, and your other readers’, comments.

    • Thanks, Ronald. I feel as if my manuscripts are cleaner even if the word count ay not be too high. For example, my last three novels ended up in the 60-65k word count range

  2. I agree for the most part, though I tend to prefer the anti-character approach. Or describing scenery only that which specifically pertains to the main characters inner psyche.

    For example, instead of saying “Becka was depressed”, one might say “the papers were scattered on the floor, and the family photos were torn to bits.” Though I wouldn’t describe any old scenery.

    The goal being to describe the space around the character, in sort of the invisible man way. That though not seen, they will always take up space.

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