Forward momentum

Thursday, December 3, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A while back, Nick wrote a post about "Chekhov's Gun." It's short and you should read it, but if you'd like to just keep forging ahead, the central idea is the following consideration for novelists: 

"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."

That is, if you've made it seem to everyone that something is important or that something is going to happen, you need to follow through.

Nick applies it to organizations, giving examples of innovation lab mandates, Blueprint 2020 goals, and employee/stakeholder engagement. And that last one is broad: promises to employees, strategic plans, and any communication that includes the phrase "stay tuned."

Different definitions of "the gun went off"

Here's an additional caution: we all have different definitions of what constitutes a satisfying gunshot. Returning to Chekhov's one-liner, if the main character takes a short break from the action to go hunting, it doesn't count. If you make a gun hanging on the wall a plot point... well, a primary character is going to have to take a bullet. Sorry.

Novelist Robert Jackson Bennett takes on the show Jessica Jones in this way, in a piece called Jessica Jones and the problem of forward momentum – or, Marvel needs a goddamn editor. As he sees it, things keep happening in the show. Conflict is introduced and resolved. Chekhov's guns are described, then fired. But his problem is that none of it truly matters, and the core state of the show never changes. In episode one, this is the concept:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

Bennett then walks through each episode and checks against that baseline after each, concluding that it doesn't budge.

In the professional world, we do this test as "The Five Whys": asking why something is the way it is, then asking "why?" about the answer, continuously. 

For example:

"Why is communication to Canadians important?" 
"To raise awareness." 
"Okay, why is awareness important?"


Yesterday I heard this referred to as the "What do you do?/Bullshit, what do you do, really?" test.

How has the core state of things changed?

That's the main question Bennett has for storytelling, that he says Jessica Jones fails: how has the core state of things changed? It's easy to write content that seems like a conclusion, but it's often communicative fondant, all structure with a vague, unsatisfying flavour.

But we're definitely not fooling our readers and stakeholders.

What's different now, because of what we've done?
If nothing's different, what have we been doing?

Put differently: the gun went off. Did it matter?