Thursday, June 16, 2011


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.


  1. Ohhhh, going back to look at my WIP now, seeing how I can add some energy to my props.

    Great post. Thanks!

  2. I think my favorite active prop is the kind that isn't OBVIOUSLY a prop from the beginning, so I can reach a certain point, when realization sinks in, and think, "Ahhh..."

    I'll agree with the active/benign theory (good one). Some props are just setting, and thank goodness. They add much needed color and depth to the work.

  3. Anne V.10:44 AM

    I don't think the rifle always has to go off, but for novice writers using the prop should be pretty important-otherwise we suffer through lots of "authentic description!".

  4. " heartless Mickey Mouse-hating bastard."

    Too funny. I loved this scene, and the prop, and how you used it.

  5. Something important to remember is that Chekhov was primarily a playwright and in scriptwriting you can only mention things that are important to the story.

    In novel writing you have to describe what's on the walls. The floral wallpaper probably has nothing to do with the story, but it tells us about the person that lives there.

    In playwriting the set is created by the scenic designer, in other words, if the characters do not interact with it you have no say in it.

    In screenwriting they do basic budgeting based on page count and describing every room in detail throws that count off. You can only mention floral wallpaper if it's important, you only mention the gun if it's used, or someone tries to use it, or someone mentions it.

    Me? Study this stuff? Nonsense.

  6. Great insightful post, Lynn. I personally don't think every prop needs to have an active role in a story or novel. Sometimes, props are mentioned or described simply to give more dimension to the setting and time/place. It helps the readers "get into" the environment and imagine the type of vicinity that the characters are living in.


  7. Haha loved the excerpt. I love Nicola and Gabriel. My favorite active props are the ones that foreshadow things to come, like the baseball trophy in Stephen King's 'The Dome'. As soon as it turned up in the book I found myself thinking "That loon is gonna do something freaky with it". :-)

  8. I like props that twist reader expectation and deepen the story-like using sweet Micky Mouse ears for a violent purpose, for example.
    Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels has a great example of this. In it the heroine discovers a fabulous Madonna and child icon and the hero wants it badly. Ms Chase threads that prop through the entire book, but its significance changes when she uses it to reveal the hero's sad backstory to the heroine later in the book.
    Thanks for posting on a great topic.

  9. I think active props are much more important in short stories because there isn't room to waste on words unless they really matter. I think without some set-dressing in a novel, a reader is left with no sense of place to put the characters in. I think the trick is how much description an item gets. If it's a rifle over hte mantle, it may not need fired. If's it's a Kentucky Long Rifle that's a prized family heirloom since great grand-daddy Henry used it in the war against those redcoats, then by gum, somebody ought to take it down and try to reuse it again.

  10. Anonymous9:07 AM

    I do not believe every rifle used as a prop has to go off. Sometimes props provide background information on a character. For example, a room described as very utilitarian except for one colorful picture could mean the character has beauty hidden within. I look at how an author describes the space as a portrayal of the protagonists character. If the protagonist has a rifle on the wall, it may mean the protag. values the rifle (maybe as a family heirloom), the protag. believes in defending themselves or it could just mean the protag. has a decorator who's also a member of the NRA! Sometimes the rifle on the wall is just a decoration!

    P.S. As a lover of all things Mickey (it is the happiest place on Earth, dangit!) I love Nicola and how she defends the mouse. Can't wait to read the new series!

  11. Love that scene! Nick and Gabriel are always fun.

    I like a mix of active and just-for-setting props. I also have a mad love for MacGuffins and never feel right without an object that does something in a story.

  12. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Another thing to consider is that props don't have to be used in order to be relevant to the story. What is in the room, or around the person, tells something about their personality, their choices, their character, their attitudes, etc. The rifle on the wall may not fire, but if it's a beat-up pre-American Civil War rifle, that says one thing. If it's a Vietnam era rifle, that says another. So on.

    And I'll add my weight behind the Chekov being a playwright thing. He's got a different onus than prose writers.


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