Anton Chekhov. The short story writer named by nearly every great Western twentieth century writer as a significant influence, who shaped the modern short story as we know it, was this nineteenth century Russian writer. Writers of every genre should be familiar with the work of Chekhov because of the extent of his influence on fiction.Chekhov is most famous for his plays including The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya and for such stories as “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The Huntsman.” Widely considered to be the finest short story writer of all time, Chekhov’s influence was so profound and wide-ranging that even if you’ve never read him, you are most likely influenced by him. James Joyce, William Faulkner, Raymond Carver and Katherine Mansfield are only a few of the writers influenced by his work. Furthermore, in letters and elsewhere, Chekhov also wrote a great deal about the craft and technique of writing itself.
In fact, Chekhov may be the originator of the admonition writers often hear to remove adjectives and adverbs, a piece of advice he originally wrote to fellow author Maxim Gorki in 1898. More of Chekhov’s advice can be found in an 1886 letter to his brother Alexander, also a playwright, in which he lists what he calls the six principles of a good story:
- Stories should avoid long discourses on politics, economics or social issues.
- Stories should be objective.
- Stories should contain true descriptions of people and things.
- Stories should be as brief as possible.
- Stories should be both audacious and original.
- Stories should exhibit compassion.
Innovations Chekhov brought to the short story include a focus on character over plot including his incisive approach to the psychology of his characters and a focus on realism. Chekhov’s emphasis on character-driven fiction, however, did not mean that he was indifferent to plot. In fact, one of Chekhov’s most famous remarks for writers concerns plot: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” In other words, everything introduced in a story must be there for a reason. The main difference in how Chekhov handled plot compared to his contemporaries and those who came before him is that in Chekhov’s stories, the plot arises from the characters and their actions rather than having the characters react to a plot imposed upon them.
If you’re a writer who has not yet read Chekhov, put his short stories at the top of your To Read stack.
Have you read much Chekhov?