How to Put the Gun on the Wall

24 Sep
Ethan Rutherford's story "Dirwhals!" was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

Ethan Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

By now, everyone knows the Russian story writer Anton Chekhov’s suggestion, “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.” In workshop, if a story needs more tension, it’s not uncommon for someone to say, “Put a gun on the wall.” Students tend to take this advice literally and hang up not only guns but knives, axes, chain saws, and mean dogs.

So, what if you want to set up plot without literally hanging something on your story’s wall? The writer Ethan Rutherford demonstrates another method in his futuristic whaling story, “Dirwhals!” It’s included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin, and you can read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

The story is about a whaling ship in the Gulf of Mexico–except that the Gulf has been drained of water, and the whales are large whale-like beasts that burrow through the sand. Most of the dirwhals have already been killed, and so the ships hunting them must travel into unknown areas. In this scene, a ship’s captain is speaking to his crew, and what he says will set up a plot point as neatly as putting a gun on the wall:

“But what he had come to tell us was now that we were moving further and further into the basin, those on watch were to be spotting for two things: dirwhals, and other shipper-tanks, which, given our current location, would most likely belong to the Firsties. A collective groan, followed by hissing, went up among the crew. Protection kooks, someone explained to me when I asked who the Firsties were. Bushard added: kamikaze environmentalists; degenerates; cultists; criminals. Capt. Tonker held up his hand for silence.

Their aim, he said, is to put us out of a job.”

The captain’s speech neatly lays out the stakes, not only the crew versus the Firsties but also the forces that are pushing them into a confrontation. Now watch how Rutherford uses these stakes to set the crew on a course that will determine the plot for the rest of the story:

“So, his order: spot the Firsties, and report them, but under no circumstances were we to engage, even if provoked. They had cameras, they wanted us to fire on them, and they would stop at nothing to manufacture an incident, even if it came at great cost to their organization. He asked us if we understood. We answered: yes, of course.”

As savvy readers, we know that the crew will run into the Firsties and things will not go according to plan. The certainty of that encounter is the gun on the wall. The decisions that lead the crew into that inevitable encounter is the story’s plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use the captain’s speech in “Dirwhals!” as a model for how to set up plot:

  1. Choose a resource that can be exhausted. In “Dirwhals!” that resource is the whale-like creatures. But most things in the world exist in limited quantities: time, money, and jobs but also less tangible things like patience and endurance.
  2. For most resources, there is one side that wants to deplete the resource and another side that wants to conserve it. For the resource that you chose, what are those sides?
  3. Let a spokesperson for one of the sides explain the situation that will lead to an inevitable confrontation with the other side. So, if the story is about a woman who works 50 hours a week and in her off-hours takes care of her kids and maintains the integrity of the house and family, she will feel that her time is limited. If her brother calls and says that their mom can’t take care of herself and so should move in with the woman, the woman will obviously not feel that such an arrangement is possible. But, let’s say her brother is in the army and about to be deployed overseas. Now, you have two sides: one (the brother) pushing to deplete an already limited resource (the woman’s time), and another (the woman) trying to conserve what little time she has left to herself. Imagine the rant she might deliver to her husband or kids about the situation–imagine if that rant ends with “One of these days, my brother and I are going to have it out, and that will be the end of things.” What follows–the events that lead to that confrontation–is the story’s plot.
  4. If you want, you can outline those events.

Good luck with this exercise. You may find that a plot outline is not necessary. Knowing where the story is headed can sometimes guide you as much as any outline.

5 Responses to “How to Put the Gun on the Wall”

  1. michaelalexanderchaney September 24, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

    a great post with good advice.

    • michaelnoll1 September 24, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

      Thanks! If you haven’t read Rutherford’s collection, you should check it out. All of the stories are pretty amazing.

  2. Rachel Jones September 28, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

    Nice! Chekhov’s quote is one of my favorites – I have it up above my desk. I really like your advice here, and I love your detailed writing exercise.

    • michaelnoll1 September 28, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

      Thanks, Rachel. Yes, Chekhov’s quote is great. It’s a reminder to drive the action forward using the items you’ve already given your story. Thanks for your comment!


  1. An Interview with Ethan Rutherford | Read to Write Stories - September 26, 2013

    […] (To read Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” and an exercise based on plot development, click here.) […]

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