Russian physician, playwright, and author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is often celebrated as one of the greatest short story writers in history, influencing a myriad of famous writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Alice Munro. Upon further examining his short fiction, as well as his philosophies on craft, I have found that Chekhov has also influenced my work, in terms of both style and intention: I too seek to portray, not preach on, the depth of everyday life, while being economical and precise on the language level.
Here are 5 pieces of craft and technique that I plucked from Chekhov’s fiction, as well as his letters on writing:
- Avoid lengthy descriptions about the emotional states of your characters. Instead, depict these emotions through their actions.
Chekhov upholds the golden rule of creative writing: “show, don’t tell.” That is to say, he focuses on how a character feels as opposed to what a character feels.
- A complex plot is not synonymous to a complex story.
The complexity of a story arises from its characters. Chekhov’s plots were rather simple. For instance, “The Lady with the Little Dog” is about two people–an aging man and a young woman–who have an affair. However, the characters’ experience of that affair is what makes the story so rich. To Gurov and Anna, the leads, the affair brings betrayal, new beginnings, first love, forgiveness, and renewal. While they aren’t dodging massive boulders like Indiana Jones, they still have an adventure.
- Be economical with your words, especially when it comes to descriptions.
There are writers who like to go all out with their descriptions: by the end of the page, we know a minor character’s face down to the very last freckle, as well as the precise number of daisies dotting the front lawn of so-and-so’s house. Chekhov deems these superfluous descriptions to be a distraction. Not to mention, these descriptions overwhelm the reader, leaving no room for his or her imagination to participate in the process of storytelling. Provide fewer, but more precise details that say the most about the characters and their world.
- Characters are people, not spokespeople.
All writers have their own, distinct reasons for writing. For Chekhov, it wasn’t to promote a sociopolitical agenda, but to capture life in an honest way. Thus, the most realistic characters aren’t plot devices, nor are they symbols. They are…people.
- It isn’t the writer’s responsibility to have all of the answers.
But, as writers, we should learn how to pose questions. Great stories get people to think–questions, implicit or explicit, leave the most room for thought.
To read more about Chekhov’s philosophies on craft, I highly suggest the book How to Write like Chekhov, edited by Piero Brunello and Lena Lenček.