Put Away Chekhov’s Gun And Other Writing Crutches

What could that be on the wall??
What could that be on the wall??

So I’m watching Disney’s The Jungle Book as a rental on my television. It’s an enjoyable movie, considering all the time and effort put into the visual effects (which is all the film’s release marketing could talk about). The digital effects that render the talking animals is outstanding, and I can almost forgive myself for laughing at Bill Murray and Christopher Walken’s singing of such hoary standards such as “The Base Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”.  Frozen, it’s not.

But…I was flabbergasted by the blatant reference that came at the very beginning of the film and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the finale. Dead trees. I know, it makes no sense but I don’t want to ruin the film for people who haven’t seen it yet. But writers of all kinds seem to find it necessary to make some pointed reference at the beginning of their story, to loop back around and have it play a part in the finale. In other words, “Chekhov’s Gun.”

Now, this is not a reference to the character on Star Trek and the late actor who was recently killed. The character of Chekhov was named for the famous Russian author and playwright. The reference “Chekhov’s Gun” is a writing technique. Explicitly stated, if a gun appears in the first act of a story, said gun should be used by the end of the story. This adage doesn’t necessarily apply to weapons, but to plot points. If a man-cub is having a pointed discussion with a talking black panther on the importance of dead trees, then you’re rest assured a dead tree is going to show up at the end and have some effect on the story’s outcome. It does. The whole story comes to a predictable ending. Not very exciting. Not very satisfying.

Regrettably, the Gun it’s an overused technique that borders on cliche. If you walk into a deserted house and you focus on a creaking chandelier hovering over your characters’ heads, then the reader will expect the chandelier to drop at the worst or best opportune moment. All I can say as a writer is, really?

What can writers do to avoid Chekhov’s Gun? Can the finale use the object in question without blatantly showing a spotlight on it before it comes into play? Are you mistaking the Gun for foreshadowing? If we zip back to The Jungle Book, it makes no difference to the outcome if the character recognizes a dead tree or not. We all know climbing one, complete with creaking and snapping sounds, already is dangerous.

So, ditch the Gun and let the scene play out.

Darkest Hour, Writing

A Review for DARKEST HOUR and Engaging Young Readers in History

BBC Infographic
BBC Infographic showing differences between British and German forces at the Battle of Britain

Received greate news from Peter Schweighofer, my editor from West End Games’ The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal. He posted a review of DARKEST HOUR on his own website, Hobby Games Recce. Peter publishes his own games and dabbles writing source material that deals with cool historical subjects, including World War II. Some of the highlights from his review:

The young adult themes – life changes, increased responsibility, social struggles, the weight of one’s choices, and the personal brutality of war – seemed a little heavy handed at times, but worked well within the historical fantasy context to weave an engaging story…apparently the first in a series.

The article also includes mentions of The Battle of Britain in wargaming. I love jumping on Peter’s site because he pays attention to a lost artform–the tabletop and roleplay game.


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    Darkest Hour (Vanquish, #1)
Darkest Hour, Vanquish, Writing

Briley Takes The Heroine’s Journey

***Warning: This article contains some plot spoilers for DARKEST HOUR.***

Although the post is almost two years old, I was forwarded an amazing article by Chris Winkle called Using the Heroine’s Journey. My stumbling about the Internet also coincided with “The Hero’s Journey”, a story structure that references Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces.

Joseph Campbell’s work is usually the go-to reference for popular fiction such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but it’s decidedly male-centric. The Heroine’s Journey (created by Maureen Murdock as a device to help real women), is a story structure that features the female protagonist. Although this structure won’t fit every kind of story, I was surprised to find how close Chris Winkle’s article mirrored many aspects of Briley’s story in DARKEST HOUR.

“…the Heroine’s Journey is about a heroine who must find balance as she struggles between the sides of a duality.”

Briley’s struggle is defined by her life at home and the life she chooses when she enlists in the Air Militia. Her mother wants her daughter back; her country needs her to fly to defend against an invasion. This struggle opens and closes the story.

Winkle’s article modified Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey with a story structure that revolves in a circle:


The Heroine's Journey
The Heroine’s Journey
  1. Shift From Feminine to Masculine
    At the start, the heroine discards the feminine and chooses the masculine. Briley is confronted by her mother to reject her boyish attire (she dresses in her father’s clothes) and take a “normal” job suitable for women (and give up working in the family’s machine shop). After her brother is injured and cannot start training with the Royal Air Militia, Briley goes against her mother’s wishes and embraces her father’s dangerous life as a pilot (even though he died flying for the RFC during the Great War.) Within the story structure, the mother is a symbol for the feminine and the expected; the father represents the masculine and the unplanned. The illusion Briley keeps of her father opens the door to a path that leads Briley away from her mother and home.
  2. The Road of Trials
    The heroine chooses a course of action that takes her away from safety and the familiar. Briley sets off on a journey that forces her out of the familiar and safe world of her home life. She takes on challenges, despite her gender, by volunteering to take up the Kestrel biplane before any of the other older recruits. Once accepted, the trials continue and Briley is constantly challenged by her elders (Lieutenant Captain Gregor, Wing Commander Lumis) and young men (Harry Haunt) who believe they are superior to her. Her trial reaches a high point when she successfully challenges Wing Commander Lumis in a mock dogfight and bests him.
  3. The Illusion of Success
    The female protagonist succeeds many challenges, but the success is not as grand as expected or comes at a price. Briley successfully completes her training period with the Air Militia and graduates as a Pilot Officer. There is great exultation and admiration from her mother, brother and her childhood friend Adam. But the success is dampened when she learns her rank earns her little respect in the eyes of Harry Haunt and his father, Lord Haunt, a powerful political figure in Parliament. Briley also discovers that not only does Adam have romantic feelings for her (and represents returning to her former life at home), but her brother Mackinley is not recovering from his injuries and could be getting worse.
  4. The Descent
    The heroine’s world is pulled out from underneath her. Nothing is as she expected. Briley is challenged by her superior to befriend a criminal she helped capture, a sky pirate named Kendrick. The Air Militia wants Briley to learn more about Britain’s enemy—the Nordlander pirates. But the situation reverses. Kendrick teaches Briley about his people and how they have been made the scapegoat for Britain’s problems. Kendrick warns her that Britain’s real enemy is The Black Legion, a powerful military force that had seized much of Europe. At the end, Paris is overrun by the Legion and France surrenders.
  5. Meeting With the Goddess
    The Goddess symbolizes the heroine’s true nature and the best parts of her. I found this to be a tricky section since at first I believed it did not fit within the structure. There is no “Goddess” so to speak, but there is the character of Kendrick. I wouldn’t normally associate Kendrick with the feminine, but he does impart Briley with several important truths about herself. 1) she is much braver than she thinks she is; 2) she believes Kendrick is being truthful and the Nordlanders will make important allies against the Legion; 3) she is an incredible pilot and should be proud of herself.
  6. Reconciliation With The Feminine
    The heroine realizes that dismissing the feminine also dismisses her identity and she strives to regain it. After surviving the Legion’s initial attack against Britain and enlisting the aid of the Nordlander pirate ship to stop the Legion from landing a boatload of spies on British shores, Briley’s superior sends her on a survey of the railroad line that passes through her village. Seeing a fire coming from her own home, she quickly lands and finds tragedy has befallen her brother and sent her mother into a blind rage. Her mother reasserts control over Briley, demanding she abandon her commission as a Militia pilot officer and rejoin their broken family as a young woman.
  7. Reincorporation of the Masculine
    The heroine struggles against the earlier masculine and feminine sides of her life. Briley must make a painful decision—should she remain home to help her mother through their tortured grief, or should she return to defend her country against an unstoppable foe—and possibly face her own death? Adam only adds to her indecision, wishing they could be together.
  8. The Union
    The heroine forges herself a new identity; one that shares both masculine and feminine. The story’s finale concludes with Briley trying to mend the broken bond between her life as a daughter, a friend, and as a pilot of the Air Militia. She promises her mother that her fate may not necessarily be the same as her father and brother’s and she will make every effort to return to her. For Adam, she acknowledges the importance of his feelings but has not yet found her own. In the end, she climbs back in her fighter plane and challenges the enemy threatening the people she loves.

I find it fascinating how Briley’s story followed the steps of The Heroine’s Journey. While not everything fit exactly, I felt the concepts of my heroine’s journey were sufficiently laid out to provide a meaningful experience for readers. I encourage you to read the book and discover Briley’s journey.