What does a fiery red bug have to do with a gun? Everything…if you’re an author writing a story and fleshing it out with detail.
Which details? Ah, the conundrum of “significant detail.” That is, the details that matter. Which details matter? Besides providing an atmosphere (setting) in which the story unfolds, those include details of characterization, plot, mood, foreshadowing, and—yes—even theme.
As a diligent practitioner of the art, you’ve peopled and decorated your storyland, and you’re steaming along with the plot when someone says, “But what about that fiery red bug?”
If it was a bug that you put on page 1, it might not matter. If it was a red bug, it still might not matter…much. But it’s a fiery red bug. It might as well be a flashing red light because it yanked the reader to a stop with this message: Pay attention to me because I’m going to be important.
And then you whiffed. Because it flew off and never came back.
You failed to follow the principle of Chekov’s gun: Anton Chekov is famously known for stating that if a gun is featured in the first act of a play, it better go off by the third act. This is broadly taken to mean that if an author spotlights some particular object, character, or incident, that object, character, or incident had better be important to the story or the reader will feel cheated.
That fiery red bug drew attention to itself. Therefore, it has to be important.
So, what do you do? Either reduce it to a lowly, easily ignored bug or make it fulfill its fiery red bug destiny in your story. But don’t—don’t—ignore the principle of Chekov’s gun. The last thing you want is an unsatisfied reader saying, “But what about that fiery red bug?”
Helen C. Johannes, long-time writing teacher, contest judge, and critique partner, is the author of award-winning fantasy romance and children’s fantasy. She writes tales of adventure and romance in fully realized worlds sprung from pure imagination and a lifelong interest in history, culture, and literature. This particular blog topic was inspired by a family COVID-19 story-writing exercise.