Chekhov’s Shotgun and Your Book

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Anton Chekhov is one of the great short story writers and playwrights, even though he died at 44. If you study the craft of writing, you’ll hear something Chekhov is supposed to have said about firearms and the first part of a story or play.

I first heard it as a quote about a shotgun on the mantlepiece. Later, I discovered Chekhov said the same thing in many ways. Here’s one I like.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.”

If you’re writing a business book, you’re probably not telling a story. Whatever you’re writing probably doesn’t have much to do with firearms hanging anywhere. But that advice is still good.

Replace the word “story” with the phrase “your book” in the first sentence of that quote. Then read that sentence a couple of times.

There was a time when books had lots of extraneous material. There was an idea about how long a book “should” be. That was then. In today’s world, books are getting shorter and shorter and more and more focused. We’re moving toward the idea of a lean book.

I want to write lean books. I want my clients to write lean books. I want you to write a lean book, too. A lean book has everything the reader will need to put your ideas into practice, but nothing more.

Here are the rules:
* Say everything that’s necessary to say.
* Don’t say anything more.

In other words, don’t put a lot of stuff in your book just to make it look thicker. Don’t hang a rifle on the wall unless you fire it.

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