A few years ago, when I was between winter semester and spring term and didn't have much else to do, I read the 39 Clues series. Essentially, it's about two kids on a worldwide treasure hunt against dozens of their messed-up distant relatives. Each book was written by a different popular YA author. 

In the follow-up series, Cahills vs. Vespers (which continues switching authors from book to book), the kids and the relatives with whom they've reconciled have to protect the treasure against a sinister organization known as the Vespers. One of those relatives is a teenage hip-hop and film star named Jonah. In one of the later books in the series, Jonah is forced to kill a Vesper agent to save some of his relatives. Naturally, Jonah is racked with shock and guilt. Being in gangster movies is much different from actually shooting someone. 

I was surprised to see something like that happen in a kids'/YA novel, but I was impressed at the depth it showed. I looked forward to seeing how this issue would play out in the next book.

But that next book—and the new author—barely even mentioned this incident.

Suffice it to say, I was extremely annoyed.

Russian playwright Anton Chekov codified a principle known as Chekov's gun, which Author #2 decidedly violated in this case:

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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" (Valentine T. Bill (1987), Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom).

In other words, don't introduce something that you're not going to make use of later in the story. 

Granted, it typically doesn't matter what, for example, a character has for dinner or what color her living-room curtains are. And in the Cahills vs. Vespers case, switching authors between books was likely a major part of the problem. But still, introducing an entire subplot with so much potential for raw emotion and character development, only to drop it as if it never existed? Not even acknowledging it in the next book? Not. Cool! It was like Author #2 hadn't even read the previous book.

We can do better than that. As we add subplots and key details to our stories, we need to make sure we have plans for how to use those elements. And when self-editing, we need to check whether we've executed those plans. Leaving readers stranded with unintentional red herrings isn't just poor writing; it's also just plain rude.

Write on,


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(Thanks to Callum Wale for sharing their work on Unsplash.)