In every field it seems there is a person whose influence spans decades. While most of that person’s contemporaries have become archaic, symbols of an era from which we have long advanced, that person remains as current and relevant as he or she was when alive. In Physics it’s Einstein (and to a certain extent Newton), in government it’s Lincoln.
In the world of literature, no one’s philosophy about writing has had more influence than Anton Chekhov. Although he wrote around the turn of the 20th century, his short stories are as beautifully written and well regarded as anything penned today. And his approach to writing fiction is still as important as it was when he introduced his style to the world.
I was reminded of his influence last week while reading short story submissions to Fifth Wednesday Journal. Most of the stories suffered from an avalanche of backstory—details about a character’s past life that are important to the writer, but not to the events of the story. One 35-page tome began with a full eight pages of unnecessary backstory. I had recently read an article in The Writer’s Chronicle, by Frederick Reiken, in which he illustrated how Chekhov dealt with the issue:
…a Russian priest by the name of S. Shchukin, had come to Chekhov with a manuscript of his work. Picking up the notebook, Chekhov said: “Fledgling authors should frequently do the following: bend the notebook in half and tear off the first half.”
I looked at him in amazement, Shchukin wrote.
“I am speaking seriously,” Chekhov said. “Normally beginners try to ‘lead into the story,’ as they say, and half of what they write is unnecessary. One ought to write so that reader understands what is going on without the author’s explanations, from the progress of the story, from the characters’ conversations, from their actions.”
The simplicity of his argument is quite profound. It seems from the submissions to 5WJ, most of which appear to be from undergrads, that Chekhov isn’t taught much at universities anymore, perhaps in favor of more modern writers and new techniques. But that is a shortcoming. Chekhov’s approach to writing is still one of the foundations of fiction, and there are many writers who could benefit by it.
more on backstory to come