Anton Chekhov’s Six Rules For Writing Fiction

Whether due to inse­cu­ri­ty, inex­pe­ri­ence, or just intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty, writ­ers of fic­tion can some­times priv­i­lege sound­ing smart over con­nect­ing with their read­ers. The result is the dread­ed “infor­ma­tion dump,” an attempt to include every­thing: every­thing, that is, but that which makes fic­tion com­pelling: minute­ly detailed descrip­tions of char­ac­ters we care about; sharply observed sit­u­a­tions that move us; moral com­plex­i­ty that feels earned and gen­uine…

All qual­i­ties that might fall under the adjec­tive “Chekhov­ian.”

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, coun­try doc­tor and mas­ter­ful short sto­ry writer, put him­self through med­ical school by writ­ing fic­tion read­ers could not put down. He has since become a stan­dard for real­ist concision—the short sto­ry ana­logue to Gus­tave Flaubert’s mas­tery of the nov­el form.

And like Flaubert, Chekhov mas­tered his art by plac­ing strict lim­its on him­self. These he out­lined in an 1886 let­ter to his broth­er Alek­san­dr in a con­cise six-point list, which you’ll find below.

  1. Absence of lengthy ver­biage of polit­i­cal-social-eco­nom­ic nature;
  2. Total objec­tiv­i­ty;
  3. Truth­ful descrip­tion of per­sons and objects;
  4. Extreme brevi­ty;
  5. Audac­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty: flee the stereo­type;
  6. Com­pas­sion

Many of these pre­scrip­tions can sound like the CIA-approved rules infor­mal­ly enforced by the 20th-cen­tu­ry Iowa Writer’s Work­shop. One can draw a line from Chekhov to Ray­mond Carv­er, Flan­nery O’Connor, John Updike, and oth­er writ­ers like­ly to have appeared in The New York­er. But many writ­ers besides Chekhov have com­plained of over­ly ver­bose, opin­ion­at­ed fic­tion.

19th cen­tu­ry writer Hen­ry James dis­par­aged what he called the “large loose bag­gy mon­sters” of Fyo­dor Dos­to­evsky and oth­er ser­i­al nov­el­ists, for exam­ple. Anoth­er nov­el­ist, Jay McIn­er­ney takes a phrase from Renais­sance schol­ar Wal­ter Pater to describe the brevi­ty of the short sto­ry: the form, he writes, cre­ates a “hard, gem­like flame.” This seems to be what Chekhov strove for in his mature work.

But three years ear­li­er, he had per­fect­ed a very dif­fer­ent kind of sto­ry, and issued a very dif­fer­ent list of pre­scrip­tions to his broth­er. In 1883, Chekhov advised that if Alek­san­dr wished to get pub­lished in the mag­a­zine Frag­ments, he should observe the fol­low­ing: “1. The short­er, the bet­ter; 2. A bit of ide­ol­o­gy and being up to date is most à pro­pos; 3. Car­i­ca­ture is just fine, but igno­rance of civ­il ser­vice ranks and of the sea­sons is strict­ly pro­hib­it­ed.”

We can see the author’s not­ed con­cern for accu­ra­cy, but not the ulti­mate and most con­cise item on his mature list: Com­pas­sion, a qual­i­ty that eclipses typol­o­gy and ide­ol­o­gy. Chekhov may not always have adhered close­ly to some of his own rules, as ethno­graph­ic writer Kirin Narayan shows. After all, who can achieve “total objec­tiv­i­ty”? But “embed­ded” in this ide­al is “the recog­ni­tion” writes Maria Popo­va at Brain Pick­ings, “that no depic­tion of real­i­ty is real­is­tic unless it includes an empath­ic account of all per­spec­tives.”

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor Explains the Lim­it­ed Val­ue of MFA Pro­grams: “Com­pe­tence By Itself Is Dead­ly”

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

Toni Mor­ri­son Dis­pens­es Sound Writ­ing Advice: Tips You Can Apply to Your Own Work

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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