How to Write like Chekhov

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I recently came across this quote from Chekhov, and for me it summed up the key to writing. It’s all in the words.  This may sound like a very obvious statement, but simplicity is not necessarily something you link with literary fiction.

One Word At a Time

For anyone starting a lengthy work, it’s a marathon of words that lie ahead of you. But like Anne Lamott says in her iconic book, Bird By Bird, you are writing one word at a time. The word becomes a sentence, becomes a paragraph and pretty soon you have a chapter.

What Word do I Use Next?

This is where Chekhov comes in. The moon is shining is a perfectly fine phrase. We can see the moon, we know there will be a light cast on the ground or the field.  But you and every other writer this side of the Steppes could have written that phrase. But the glint of light on broken glass? Now there is a description that’s worth writing.

How Else Can I write It?

Chekhov is throwing down the gauntlet and making us work for our writer’s crust. So let’s see what we can do. If the glint of light is the moon, how else could we say that? The circle of light, the distant glow? No, it’s neither, because it’s just a glint. So fleeting glimpse might work – the fleeting glimpse of white, of light, or the fingernail moon, fingernail light. So we’ve given ourselves a few options.

English: A portrait of Anton Chekhov by his br...

On Broken Glass? What does that Mean?

We know the moon is not shining on a field. Unless it’s a field of snow or ice. More likely it’s a lake.

So the moon is shining on a lake.  What then is a different way to say a lake? A puddle? – not quite…

A shimmer or ripple of water. Ripple of water’s not bad. What about the color?  At night, a body of water would look black, so the moon is changing the color from black to white.

So we could have the fleeting glimpse of white danced between the light and dark of the lake….Mmm… Bit wordy.

Let’s try again. The fingernail moon pierced the darkness of the lake.  Getting better. But still not the glint of light on broken glass.

Perseverance

Very occasionally you  find a phrase that falls off the end of your pen that’s the glint of light on broken glass. But more than likely, you will have to work your muse into helping you find the solution. As I’ve said before, all writing is rewriting, so if you start with the moon shone on the lake, and it sounds flat, just play with the words. One word at a time, as we’ve been doing.

 Showing is Experiencing

Show don’t tell is the mantra of every writer, and the bane of every beginning writing. It is in essence what Chekhov is saying. Make me feel I am in the moonlight. And I do when I see the glint of light on broken glass. It’s there in front of my eyes. I’m in the scene, not outside. And that’s crucial for your readers to experience the story for themselves, not second hand. To experience  the same thing as the character who can feel the hot breath of their pursuer on their neck as they come out of the woods and see the glint of light on broken glass. It stops them short, and makes them either pause and get caught,  or find enough light to see the one path that they can escape on.  It has in one fell swoop opened up the tension to be life or death in a way that “I ran toward the moonlight” would never have done.

 Simplicity

All of this is with the use of simple words. You don’t need to be a walking thesaurus to create fantastic prose. Simple is usually better. While I like to learn new words, I hate reading a book where I need a dictionary by my bed stand.

So I’ll leave you with the hot breath of the pursuer on my neck, as icicles of light dance on ripples kissing the boat.  I snatch the rope and disappear into the black night.

How would you have reworded the quote? What tricks do you use to try and find the right words for your writing?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Comments

  1. I certainly want to read more Chekhov. I’ve mostly read his short stories.

    So true, about the choices of words: that’s why I am so careful about the authors I choose to read. I’m now reading Faulkner – not easy to read, but full of rich characters.

    I suppose as I consider myself more of a reader than a writer, I have an easier task … collect all those glints of light on broken glass.
    Leora recently posted..Flat Illustration Trees and LeavesMy Profile

    • I have read a few of his stories and seen a couple of his plays years ago. It was really the quote that got to me. I have recently become more picky myself about who I read again, as I spend more time writing and blogging. Like you I don’t want to waste my time on something that gives me little in return. I recently re-read the Sound & the Fury funnily enough. Faulkner really is a great writer, and captures life in the south extremely well – I say that , but then I’m only going on what other authors tell me!
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  2. I am a reader, not a writer. That said I do write non-fiction. The points you make could also apply depending on what it is I am writing.

    I know what I enjoy reading and if the writer follows the points you make in this post, it makes it much easier and better reading.
    Cheryl recently posted..Gardman Mini #Greenhouse: ReviewMy Profile

    • A non-fiction writer is most certainly a writer Cheryl! Don’t sell yourself short there. As you say it’s equally important to get the best out of the work that you can and choose words carefully. A good writer makes it so seamless you don’t even notice how easily the words flow. You just sit back and enjoy the work. Thanks for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  3. Hi A.K. Thanks for this further insight into Show versus Tell of which Chekhov was certainly a master. There is a rhythm to “the glint of light on broken glass” that would be difficult to improve upon. I would only consider changing it if the glass had broken during the course of the current scene in which case I would sacrifice the rhythm for immediacy to “the glint of light on shattered glass” . I considered “a shard of light on shattered glass” bit it seems a bit too forced.
    Paul Graham recently posted..Beyond SpecializationMy Profile

    • I definitely like a glint of light on shattered glass. But as you saw, I found it hard to better or even replicate. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It was really enjoyable to write as it is key to my interest in the process. Thank you for your take on the phrase -most appreciated:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  4. PS I liked your share on the 101 Daily Writing exercise A.K but rather enjoy being a “binge” writer so passed on it this time but may consider again in future.
    Paul Graham recently posted..Beyond SpecializationMy Profile

    • Thanks Paul – I am more of a binge writer too, but sometimes think that I might benefit by going back to basics sometimes on small exercises. That said, as of today I haven’t yet…we’ll see.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  5. This post helps me to understand why I sometimes get frustrated when writing. One word at a time means having to examine a sentence from every angle, and often just start over again.
    Patricia Weber recently posted..Powerful Presentations by the Powerful IntrovertMy Profile

    • I’m afraid that’s the case Pat – all writing is re-writing. But you don’t always have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just trying a new sentence or phrase helps to get to the root of what you’re trying to say. Glad you found it helpful.
      I always enjoy your writing BTW, and never feel it’s slapdash or just thrown together. Perhaps you are more thoughtful about your work than you give yourself credit for:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  6. “Icicles of light dance on ripples kissing the boat” this is a great image. You know the best part of this is the simple words used to create this image.
    Jon Jefferson recently posted..Chicken with mead and mushroom sauce #realfoodMy Profile

  7. Hi A.K
    I really liked the way you took a phrase and tried to reword it to mean the same. I don’t know if in my blog there is room for that but I’m going to try and play around with it.
    thanks
    Lenie
    Lenie recently posted..Yummy Yogurt Treats – So Easy To MakeMy Profile

    • Thanks Lenie. It was quite a challenge to come up with something halfway decent I have to say. But playing with words is what we do with our blogs isn’t it, even if we don’t always think of it in those terms:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  8. You are so right, AK, that show don’t tell is what Chekhov is saying. And for someone who writes fiction that’s essential. Love it when a book takes me back to places I know very well and I know where I am from how the author shows me. That applies not least to my old home town, London.
    Catarina recently posted..Tough times never last – But tough people doMy Profile

    • It’s such a basic thing, but not always so easy. I too love to get transported when I’m reading, and even more so when it’s places I know & love. I don’t think I knew you used to live in London. I was there from ’76-’81. Loved it while I was there, then it just became too big & busy. Things change & we need new stimulus.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  9. Hi A.K., Trying to find the phrase that lights you up is what it’s all about I agree. And you know it when it happens; whether it falls into your lap or you worked and reworked the sentence for ages. It’s the great reward of writing. A flow of words that conveys every ounce of your idea and most importantly gives the reader an opening for their own imagination to complete the route and take them where-ever feels right for them.
    Tim recently posted..Brazilian Death TrainMy Profile

  10. I think that quote is perfection AK and sums up what a writer needs to keep in mind for his/her reader. The show rather than tell principal can be confusing, but that quote really sums it up beautifully. I love the challenge of arranging words to create an image or evoke a very strong emotion. To me, when you achieve that , the writer has done their job. To me, that is bliss 🙂
    Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) recently posted..Ethics Violations… Where’s The Justice?My Profile

  11. What words do I use next? OMG I think all those choices is what often makes me feel like my writing pace is glacial. Well that and I am working on too many things at once 😉 Chekov always gets touted as the premier short story writer in college workshops and for good reason. Yet, the flip side of trying to show something by picking words that create more specific imagery can be purple prose. It’s quite the balancing act, but the more we read and write, the better we become at our craft. After not writing creatively for so long, I’ve found some of my recent attempts to be too cerebral and removed from the action at hand. Alas, that’s what revision is for as well as great critique partners.
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  12. This kind of writing makes me want to give up being a writer, and just become a reader! You make a good point that you don’t need a thesaurus, just simple words used well. I’m dying to know what happens to your heroine – does she escape her pursuer?!?
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  13. Jacqui Burns says:

    Hi A.K. Long time, eh?
    I adore Chekhov, and have just finished yet another re-read of Anna Karenina. It’s not so much the choice of his words, but the rhythm of them that gets me. That sentence, the one you’re considering, is, of course, written in perfect Iambic Heptameter. (One ‘unstressed’, followed by one ‘stressed’ syllable – Di Daa Di Daa Di Daa Di Daa.) Iambic verse by it’s nature, is the heartbeat of both poetry and prose. Shakespeare was a master of it. It gets to our heart, by beating in time with it.
    ‘I miss my friend and send her love.’ – a little iambic thought for you A.K. xxx

    • Hey Jacqui!! How good to see you here on the site:-))) These Russian writers – I don’t know how they do it. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books and I really want to re-read it. But this simple quote really got to me. We know all the words – just not necessarily how to arrange them. Really interesting what you’re saying about Iambic Heptameter. I hadn’t thought of it before in terms of a heartbeat. What a precious iambic thought you’ve sent Jacqui. Thank you SO much. “I turn it round & send back to you”. x
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  14. Hi A.K.
    I wouldn’t attempt to improve this, but a glint of light on broken glass conjures images of the dark canvas of night bleeding faint traces of light through its pores, refracted as shards of divinity.
    William Butler recently posted..What Can We Learn From A Blade Of Grass?My Profile

  15. Hi AK!
    I’m a blogger but I can’t define myself as a writer 🙂
    Thanks for this great insights, we have to put more attention to detail, think of what’s behind a certain concept, think of other ways to express what we see and feel. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Don’t sell yourself short – a blogger IS a writer. There are all kinds of writers, from an enormous range of fiction to non -fiction, journalists, bloggers, etc. But its good to really be conscious of what we write , whatever kind of writer we are. Thank you for stopping by.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  16. Awesome post! I love how you broke it down to the simplest of form and built it up to beauty. Thanks, A.K.
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  17. Great description. I’m afraid I regularly bore myself and my readers with overused phrases (I nearly wrote bore myself to tears). 🙂 It’s the price of not giving myself sufficient time to compose and rewrite and rewrite, maybe rewrite once more.
    Debra Yearwood recently posted..Time Keeps on TrickingMy Profile

    • You sell yourself very short Debra – I always find your posts interesting, but certainly rewriting a lot improves work. Sometimes we don’t always have that luxury. Thanks for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  18. What a great description A.K. It really helps showcase how he accomplish the beauty and rhythm of his stories. I am not a writer by training. I never really see myself as a writer. I do worry that my stories are too simple and there fore not as engaging. I find that Grammarly is a great help when it comes to changing over use of words. It also helps that I have someone proof read my stuff before I publish it. Still I worry I’m not doing a sufficient job… sigh!
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Answer To A Prayer: StoryMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Susan. Like Debra, you are selling yourself short as a writer. We all have different styles. But certainly I do feel that writing more and rewriting whatever you do write can only improve anyone’ work. Though of course you also have to be careful not to overwork something too. Like life its all in the balance.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  19. Thanks for this. I really am struggling my way through a work of fiction and this guide is great! It’s funny that you write about Checkov because I tried out one of his short story collections recently and felt somewhat discouraged reading him.

    He does have a way with words but his stories proved tiresome. I quite enjoyed his back story as opposed to his finished product. But anyway, thanks for the tips. Great post!
    Carl recently posted..Why Revisit Places?My Profile

    • Thanks so much Carl. So glad it was of help. Chekhov’s work isn’t necessarily the easiest to read, and the grim outlook in the stories get be a bit much.But it was the phrase more than anything that caught my eye. Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile

  20. That is one of my all-time favorite quotes on writing. I had it printed up to go in fortune cookie favors for my wedding!

    The very first thing I learned about writing – way back in grammar school in the early 80s – was to show and not tell. It stuck with me all these years. It is probably one of the most important foundational tools when writing effectively.

    Thank you for sharing this with all the lovely writers out there!

  21. I think you bring up an excellent point! Words make or break our writing, and yes, it sounds redundant or obvious, but sometimes we don’t pay enough attention. I really like the quote you begin with. Thanks for the tips!

  22. Love the quote by Chekhov and your analysis of same. I am not a writer by trade. I blog and write whatever comes to my mind. I don’t know if I could be that analytical – maybe people think I write poorly or blandly. I don’t use such colorful language and just let the thoughts and words flow. The comments you have received are very complimentary of the choice you made to analyze. I am in awe because, although I analyze a lot of different posts I write for my clients, never have a pulled a quote from a famous writer. Thanks for breaking it all down for us.
    Laurie Hurley recently posted..Why Being a Quitter is a Winning StrategyMy Profile

    • Thank you SO much for your comment Laurie – I’m truly flattered, and basically you’ve made my start to the week after the holiday weekend. I think we all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to our blogs – as well as our different styles. I could never write anything approaching your blog. But what’s great is the mix makes for a great learning experience , and an interesting one, for all of us. Have a great week.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..How to Write like ChekhovMy Profile