Writing Advice From Anton Chekhov: Part Three – Ambiguity


Anton Chekhov is held up as the paragon of Minimalism. To me Minimalism is another way of describing good writing. In fact, I once heard Minimalism called Essentialism. Everything in the text is essential to the text.

To include the unnecessary is therefore bad writing. This is more than in details given in scenery or physical descriptions, it also has to do with subject matter and theme. No one ever called Chekhov an activist writer. Such he would abhor. One of the greatest contributions Chekhov ever made to the realm of Creative Writing was perfecting and demonstrating the craft of Ambiguity. None achieved it better with the possible exception of Shakespeare.

The Unbiased Observer

It seems to me that the writer should not try to solve such ques­tions as those of God, pes­simism, etc. His busi­ness is but to describe those who have been speak­ing or think­ing about God and pes­simism, how and under what cir­cum­stances. The artist should be not the judge of his char­ac­ters and their con­ver­sa­tions, but only an unbi­ased observer.”

Chekhov does not use his prose to take a stand. Instead, he expertly raises questions he never answers. He has enough regard for the reader to handle that task. The manuscript serves to raise the questions of life and bring up the pros and the cons and give the reader something to think about. The reader can take what Chekhov raises and intelligently discuss such important and universal messages with others who have read Chekhov, even with those who have not.

The Proper Problem

You are right in demand­ing that an artist should take an intel­li­gent atti­tude to his work, but you con­fuse two things: solv­ing a prob­lem and stat­ing a prob­lem cor­rectly. It is only the sec­ond that is oblig­a­tory for the artist.”

When we speak of fiction, we are talking about Creative Writing, not Didactic Writing. If someone wants the answers to life, then they should turn to the essays written by philosophers. If they want the tools to hunt for the answers for themselves, let them pick up a volume of Chekhov, whether novel, short story, or play.

Chekhov understands the real secret of story-telling: there is only one story. The one story is what it means to be a human. We are all different, but our problems are the same, or difficulties are similar, and our struggles are universal. Chekhov masterly tells this one story over and over. The variation is merely the differences in plot, but in the end, they tell the same one story. And these variations of the one story perform the same task, asking questions without answering them.

Horse Thievery

You abuse me for objec­tiv­ity, call­ing it indif­fer­ence to good and evil, lack of ideas and ideals, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse thieves, say: ‘Steal­ing horses is an evil.’ But that has been known for ages with­out my say­ing so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job sim­ply to show what sort of peo­ple they are. I write: you are deal­ing with horse thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beg­gars but well-fed peo­ple, that they are peo­ple of a spe­cial cult, and that horse steal­ing is not sim­ply theft but pas­sion. Of course it would be pleas­ant to com­bine arrow t with a ser­mon, but for me per­son­ally it is impos­si­ble owing to the con­di­tions of tech­nique. You see, to depict horse thieves in 700 lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit. Oth­er­wise, the story will not be as com­pact as all short sto­ries out to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for him­self the sub­jec­tive ele­ments that are lack­ing in the story.”

The end of this quote reminds me of Hemingway’s concept of story writing. He compared it to an iceberg. The words on the page are the visible part of the iceberg and the rest of the iceberg is the remainder of the story. The unseen part of the iceberg is the majority of the iceberg. So most of the story is actually unwritten by the author.

A great deal of this underwater iceberg portion of the story is the judgments one may make. You may recognize this quote by Chekhov. It is probably the most famous saying of his along with the moonlight quote used in an earlier part of this series. The conclusions are to be drawn by the reader, not the writer. Stated another way, it is not the job of the writer to answer the questions of life, but just ask them, as well as debate them with the use of narrative, dialogue, and all character interaction. It is the reader’s job to come up with the solutions regarding human existence.

Authors are neither preachers nor philosophers. Or, at least if they are elsewise, they do not practice this specialty while in the role of author. Now we all know that writers and readers. Not only that, but reading fuels our writing. In fact, I’m careful to watch what I read as I work on a project knowing it could color my text. My challenge to all the Creative Writers who are reading this is to get a hold of some stories by Chekhov. Try a novel, a short story, and a play for starters. Read one of each and look for this ambiguity. Look for ways you can use this to expert your writing. But don’t sell yourself short. You should also read Chekhov to look for the tools in answering the difficult questions of life. This is why he wrote in the first place. You will be a better person and a better writer.

Please Share this article with other Creative Writers you know. And feel free to make any Comments you wish in the section below.


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3 responses to “Writing Advice From Anton Chekhov: Part Three – Ambiguity

  1. Excellent article, thorough, detailed, informative, insightful and with a good deal of research. Loved the quotations from his letters as and you eloquent, simple, accessible and concise explanations of them. Thanks so much for all of your time and effort here, brilliant article. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog this article? Thanks.

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