In Naming the World, a how-to with a collection of essays and exercises from writers/editors/teachers, author Nick Arvin wrote a piece about revision, specifically about how to revise physical objects in the story -- what he refers to as props -- to make them more effective as a story element. He mentions Chekhov's Gun, one of those literary theories they beat into our heads in high school.
According to Chekhov, no object in the story should be there without a reason:
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." —Anton Chekhov (From S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.)
I agree with Chekhov, sort of. I think of props as active and benign; the active ones are there for a reason, the benign there for the setting. Active props are probably the least-used story element in genre writing, and it's a shame, too, because when employed with some imagination they can be pretty effective. Not only as elements to provide some foreshadowing for the reader, but as inspiration for dialogue, focal points in an otherwise ho-hum scene, etc.
My new Darkyn trilogy is unusually object-driven. When plotting I always like to use unusual active props, so it's probably no surprise that I employed Mickey Mouse ears to inspire and put a fresh spin on what would have otherwise been a pretty standard confrontation scene (and if you want to see how I did it, head over to the stories blog and read the partial scene here.)
Most of the time I see great stuff in other writers' stories that is only described, and this kills me, because when I come across that mysterious urn of ashes or portrait of a one-legged man I start telling myself stories about them while I'm reading. Then I get to the end of the story and those great props are still sitting there, unused and covered with dust, like story clutter.
That said, not every prop in a story has to have a reason for being there. Some props are active and others aren't. Not all rifles go off; sometimes they really do just hang on the wall as part of the setting description. If we didn't have at least some benign props, every story would be written in a series of empty rooms, vacant lots and flowerless meadows.
What's your favorite type of active prop in a story? Do you think the rifle hanging on the wall always has to go off? Let us know in comments.