Occam’s Razor, Chekhov’s Gun ~ Outside the Margins with KJ Charles

Join Prism Book Alliance® as KJ Charles goes Outside the Margins today.


There is a philosophical concept known as Occam’s Razor, which goes, Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate. Or, for those of us who can’t remember where we put our Latin, Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. (Bear with me, we’ll be getting more comprehensible shortly.)

This is actually advice aimed at theological arguments. (It tells you to avoid superfluous ontological apparatus, according to Wikipedia. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up). However, most people apply it in ways that circle around the basic concept of don’t introduce complicating factors unnecessarily. The simpler answer is more likely to be right. Don’t use more when you can do it with less.

What I mean is, if Lord Smith is lying dead on the library floor with a gunshot wound in his forehead, Lady Smith is standing there with a gun in her hand repeating, “Thank God the bastard’s dead,” and the butler is polishing the tropical fish tank, Occam’s Razor suggests that the police should arrest Lady Smith as a first step, rather than examining Lord Smith to see if the butler shoved a Siamese fighting fish down his throat to choke him before Lady Smith shot the corpse. (Unless you’re in one of those 1920s drawing room murder plots.)

You’ve doubtless heard of Chekhov’s Gun. (If you haven’t, here’s my blog post on it.) Chekhov’s Gun tells us that if you have a gun hanging prominently on the wall of the set, someone needs to fire it. Occam’s Razor, writing version, tells us that if you’re going to have someone fire a gun, you don’t need an axe, a bow and arrow, a catapult, a bottle of arsenic and a trained mamba as well. (Unless you’re still in one of those 1920s drawing room murder plots.)

Don’t use more when you can do it with less. If an MC is getting life advice from a best friend and a sister and a work colleague and a wise mentor…do you need four people? Can you boil their plot functions down to three, two, one character/s? If you have an exciting escape scene, and then later another exciting escape scene, what is the second one doing? What’s different in the second one, posing a crucial contrast and offering a different form of excitement, tension, threat? Is the second scene an entity in its own right? Are the different entities earning their places?

This isn’t just theoretical. If you can fold elements together, you can interweave plots, keep the cast list tight and controlled, add new facets to minor characters, develop features into themes. An entity (plotline, character, prop) that only has one function in the book looks like you put it there to serve that function (because, um, you did). But give the entity multiple functions and you start to have an organic part of the plot, something that seems to be there for one reason and can surprise readers when the second function is revealed.

Example from my own work. In A Fashionable Indulgence, the first of my Society of Gentlemen trilogy, Harry Vane buys a very poorly judged puce coat. He and his lover Julius have a massive row, ostensibly over the coat, which precipitates a change in their relationship. I could have discarded the coat at that point as a Chekhov’s Gun that had been fired. It caused the row, job done.

However, I subsequently needed a villain to make an attempt on Harry’s life and fail, in a way that was not immediately obvious to reader or characters as a murder attempt. I could have done that in a dozen ways. What I did was to have Harry hand the puce coat to someone else, who gets stabbed wearing it in a case of mistaken identity. So the coat plays a second role there, as cause of a red-herring murder. And then it turns out that the puce coat on the dead man links him to Harry Vane in a way that must be concealed from the law—which fact precipitates a reunion between the estranged lovers of the second book.

Of course I could have made those three crucial things—the row, the murder, the reunion—happen in a dozen different ways. But not using more when I could do it with less, tying it all together via the single element of the coat and its consequences, makes the events of the trilogy seem a cascade of inevitabilities, rather than a sequence of random things happening. And since this is a tightly knitted interwoven trilogy, that’s exactly what I needed to achieve.

I have only one thing to add, which is: Is anyone else picturing Occam with a vicious straight razor and Chekhov with his gun drawn, warily circling each other as per a 1960s gangster movie? Just me? Okay, cool.

KJ Charles is a writer and freelance editor. Her latest book is A Gentleman’s Position, the third in the Society of Gentlemen trilogy. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Find her on Twitter @kj_charles or on Facebook, join her Facebook group, or get the newsletter here.

This will be my last OtM post for the time being due to various pressures. Thanks very much to the Prism team for having me!

~KJ Charles

About KJ Charles

Comment Contest
One random commenter with thoughtful, relevant comments will win a $25 gift certificate each month in 2016.
This post may contain affiliate links.
Prism Book Alliance® assumes no liability for the ownership of photos or content used in guest posts and interviews.  The post author assumes all responsibility and liability for this content.

4 thoughts on “Occam’s Razor, Chekhov’s Gun ~ Outside the Margins with KJ Charles

  1. I learn so much from your posts! (I must have a ton bookmarked.) You explain in such an uncomplicated manner that I instantly get it! Thank you!!

  2. I’ve always thought Occam might be a bit more subtle than that. Maybe have the blades sewn into the brim of his fedora. He’s definitely a fedora man. Chekhov OTOH has one of those furry ones with ear flaps.

    • Ooh, I like your thinking there, Elin! But wouldn’t sewing the razor into the brim of a hat be over-complicating matters & therefore go against the rule attributed to him?

      …but then, just because it’s Occam’s razor & Checkov’s gun doesn’t mean to say each man is in the possession of his own weapon… help, I feel a plot bunny coming on!

Leave a Reply