You’ve probably read a book with a terrible ending and came away from it entirely dissatisfied.
Perhaps you gave up part way through when something ridiculous or unbelievable happened, and it soiled the experience. You may have had a similar experience at the cinema. Movies, in many ways, are pared down novels explored in a visual medium; Hollywood movies especially trim away the fat of subplots in favour of simplicity or time constraints. Perhaps the plot of your film or novel had a gaping hole centre-mass, hastily plugged by some kind of McGuffin or weak literary device. Such devices can, of course, work well when deployed correctly. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, is a film that wouldn’t work without the titular McGuffin of the ark. Other times, however, devices can feel like cheats or cheap escapes to circumvent a thorny plot problem.
These mistakes aren’t exclusively limited to amateur writers, and famous examples can help us avoid such errors in our own writing efforts. There’s probably a rule or two along the way, and something that definitely should be a rule: if you write an article mentioning Chekhov’s Gun, you have to explain what it is before the end. We should start, however, at the beginning…
Fiction begins with an unspoken contract between writer and reader (or viewer) called the willing suspense of disbelief. As readers, we agree to set aside the knowledge that what follows is made up, and instead treat the characters and story as though they are real.
By the time we’re adults, this is so automatic we barely think about it. We experience the highs and lows of protagonists as if they are real people. We’re as puzzled as the detective struggling to solve a locked room mystery, we sympathise with the action hero who’s already lost so much but has to keep going, and we may shout out at that character in the horror story not to open the closet door, because we all know something bad is behind it; we become invested in characters and their trials.
There is also the other side of the contract, a commitment by the writer. The reader will usually prove willing to suspend their disbelief, but only up to a point. The writer’s obligation in this contract is to make the reader’s task as easy as possible and to never push past that point where disbelief can no longer be suspended. You could see this as sticking to only events and actions that are possible, but that would rule out Fantasy. Instead, a better rule to avoid breaking that suspension is, stick to only what’s possible within that realm of fiction. A reader might not bat an eyelid at a unicorn gambolling across the landscape in a Fantasy novel, but try it halfway through a hard-boiled detective novel and you’ve got a massive problem.
There is a little leeway with possibilities. Conventions allow for stretching of truth and fact within genres. An action hero might, for example, be unusually gifted at hand to hand combat or be an almost perfect shot while the villains can’t hit a barn door from ten metres. Skills and capabilities can be enhanced beyond believable norms in fiction, but it’s possible to take it too far, especially if you end up breaking the laws of physics along the way. Driving a car at high speed out of the top of one skyscraper and crashing through a few floors down on a neighbouring skyscraper might look great on a cinema screen, but even the Fast and Furious franchise couldn’t make that seem believable. In the Sandra Bullock film Gravity, there’s a moment where a space capsule is opened to the vacuum of space and the character doesn’t experience explosive decompression and death. The film gets away with it by revealing this as a dream sequence, but it’s a cheap gimmick that broke suspension of disbelief for very little reward.
Writers make all sorts of promises to readers, some of which can be gleefully broken. Toying with expectations is part of a writer’s job, whether you’re trying to make someone seem sympathetic, or leading the detective and reader down a false trail to a suspect who’ll eventually be exonerated before revealing the real killer at the finale. Other promises, however, can be broken at your own peril, as the next paragraph (containing mild spoilers from the Game of Thrones TV series) illustrates.
The Game of Thrones series went through many plot twists and turns, but from an early stage it delivered a singular promise, that for the those playing the game “you win or you die.” It was made again and again, and one of the reasons many people were unsatisfied with the grand finale was that it failed to deliver fully on this promise. In the final stages, there was the usual sweary gore fest we’d come to expect, but the real ending was something different. After machinations and double-dealings at every stage, the survivors did something entirely unexpected: they were actually sensible in the way they set up a new government. That resolution both stretched believability (there was no earlier indication of common sense breaking out among the characters) and broke that promise of victory or death, ending the story in a whimper with neither.
McGuffins and Guns
Chekhov’s Gun is a principle named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s principle says that if you have a gun in the first act, then it has to go off before the end of the final act. It’s similar in nature to William Strunk’s commandment in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Chekhov’s Gun is a directive to add only what’s needed: what’s the point of having a gun, if it’s not going to be used? It’s also a warning about laying false trails and using cheap tricks on your audience, implying that adding elements never to be used weakens the overall story.
McGuffins are a plot tool of writers, typically an item that drives the story along in some fashion. These can be any number of objects, such as something which has to be found (e.g. a search for the Holy Grail or the titular Maltese Falcon) or destroyed (The Lord of the Rings) or is important in some other manner.
McGuffins, Chekhovian guns, and plot twists are all tools of the writer, and when deployed correctly can take a story to the next level. If in doubt, it’s probably best to be miserly in their usage: if you’re not sure the story needs it, then it probably doesn’t. Literary tools can enhance a story, but overuse can also ruin them. One useful tip for when you’re stuck and wresting with thorny plot problems is to take a break and go for a walk. Getting away from the problem for a while can often help a writer get some perspective and find new solutions to story problems. Yes, it’s a simple trick, but you’ll be surprised how often it works.