Chekov’s Gun, the oft-quoted axiom that whenever you introduce something of significance in a story, say a rifle on the wall in act one of a play MUST fire at some point later in the play. In short, do not introduce something of note unless it actually matters to the plot.
That said, I offer a new variation on the old idea; The Forgotten Chekov’s Gun
At the outset, I am not talking about a poorly written play that introduces a gun and then never uses it. No, my issue is with serialized stories that either through oversight or poor writing drop the ball on their gun. The gun fires, but promptly goes into a black hole, never to bother the plot again. Even more galling is when the gun is so uniformly cool that they would be idiots not to dig it up and fire it in a later episode/book.
Star Trek (the original series) is a classic example. Kirk steals a cloaking device that makes ships invisible. Never gets mentioned again, though it is a major tactical advantage. The Next Generation healed some people in the transporter and this technique, while wildly successful and fast, barely gets a future mention.
Though the true source of my ire lies at the feet of Robin Hobb. A few weeks ago her name came up as a notable fantasy writer that I had not read. So I scrounged up a copy of “The Assassin’s Apprentice” and gave it a read. Quality of the book aside (overrated and verbose were words that came to my mind), I raged when I found an insulting forgotten gun. Insulting because it is intentionally forgotten to make the weak plot work.
Early in the book our hero discovers that some people (nobility) have a sort of telepathy. Exactly how it works and its limits are left vague, other than to mention few people really can do it well and it is something of a fading art. They specifically mention that no one has studied under the sole tutor for this ability in 15 years. Clearly this ability is not that useful. This sets off a series of events where the hero goes to a brutal telepath school to hone his skills, learn to be a Jedi like his father etc, etc.
Until about 60% of the way through the book when you learn one of the nobility is waging a one-man campaign against some evil pirates. He tricks the ship’s navigators into sailing into rocks/storms with his telepathym leagues away from his target. Our nobleman can kill with his brain.
So this “fading” ability that no one really bothers to train anymore gives one the ability to undetectably kill from great distances (many miles) without leaving a trace? And only the nobility have this power? Using this power does drain the telepath, but that is ok because he can tap power from a group of trained, but lower-level telepaths…that they no longer train because….reasons.
Are you kidding me? No one forgets a power like that. Keep it secret certainly. Limit training to only the most loyal, of course. Where is the army of spare telepathic “batteries” to fortify king and his retinue when they “cast?” Would not each noble with the power seek to create his own cadre of batteries for his own uses? It is a useful power for a politician and yet another tool to extend their power. IT WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN OR NEGLECTED. Just letting it slowly fade away is insulting to the reader. No one in a position of power has ever abandoned a weapon that useful. Unless the writer needs to fix some plot issue.
This is my plea; if your plot (RPG, book, movie, tv) requires otherwise sane people to ignore useful tools, then start over and create a different plot. Even better, put some thought into what that “cool” item/power/ability actually means to the larger world of your plot. It will save much pain later.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer