The following originally appeared in 2015 on the blog of one my literary heroes, Ed Gorman. Ed passed away in October 2016. But you can still read some of his final musings at newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com.
Showing The Rifle
Like anyone who has spewed forth a book, I’m occasionally asked what the toughest thing is about writing. I’ll mumble something about the difficulty of making time to write when you have a full-time job and family, or trying to write when you’re not inspired, or something equally cliché.
But I’m lying. I don’t want to talk about it, but there is one thing that even after writing two books is BY FAR the hardest thing to do.
Knowing how to show the rifle.
You probably recognize the phrase. Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you show a rifle hanging over the mantle in Act I it had better go off in Act III or you shouldn’t mention it.
Chekhov was referring to keeping extraneous detail out of your writing. If something doesn’t serve a distinct purpose to plot or characterization, chop it out. Great advice.
But for me, “showing the rifle” is more about burying the clues that my protagonist uses to solve the mystery the book is about. Because what you want to do is show the rifle, sure, but do it in such a way that when the gun goes off, it’s a complete and utter surprise to the reader. For my money, the hardest trick in literature.
In this context, of course, mystery is an all-encompassing term, not a particular genre. Every book… heck, every tale ever told is at its heart, a mystery. Every protagonist has a problem that must be solved, and the story consists of the obstacles and clues he finds along the way that enables him to solve the problem, be it romantic or galactic.
I’m a pretty easy audience. I’ll put up with wooden characters, familiar scenes, trite dialogue. As long as the story is moving at a good clip, I’m happy. But the second the detective suddenly produces a clue that was conveniently not mentioned when she first “noticed” it, or pulls some piece of arcane knowledge out of thin air, I’m out of there.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. There are few things more irritating than reading a setup that is so obvious it might as well be outlined in red, then biding your time for the rest of the book for the “big reveal” on page 277 that you knew has been coming since Chapter 3.
So I obsess over the rifle.
It’s nerve-wracking. You painstakingly plant clue after clue, then scuff just enough metaphorical dirt over each one, hoping they go unnoticed even though to you it’s like there’s a big, red arrow pointing at each one that screams “LOOK, LOOK! SETUP FOR THE END OF THE BOOK HERE! RIGHT HERE! HE’S GOING TO REFER TO THIS LATER DURING HIS *SHOCKING* PLOT TWIST! BE WARNED!”
Fortunately, of all the reviews of my books, no one has ever said anything about the big red arrow. In fact, I have even gotten a few “I totally did not suspect the twist at the end!” What I consider to be the absolute highest praise any plot-driven author can receive:
There is no rifle in the Traveler books. At least, not yet. But if I put one in, it will definitely go off. And if it’s still a surprise after I telegraphed it for you just now, I’ll take that as a compliment.