The Vanilla Ice Cream of Writing Advice

Notes on not wasting flavor

Having kids means cooties in the best of times.

But peak pandemic was an adventure.

For 18 months or so every sniffle, every tickle in the throat had us worried our 8 y/o might not just have normal cooties but the HCIC (Head Cootie In Charge).

There were at least three times he told us he couldn’t taste anything.

(he was fine, and totally not sick)

During one of these scares, though, he went to the refrigerator for a drink. He stood there, debating, then announced:

I’m just gonna get water. Since I can’t taste anything, Gatorade would just be wasting flavor.

Wasting flavor.

That’s today’s theme.

  • 🧠 Learn: Wasting flavor AKA Chekhov’s Gun—and some popular examples

  • ❤️ Love: A new show that wastes nothing, not even a ballpoint pen

  • ⍰ Curious: Notes on Jaws in honor of upcoming Shark Week (and Anton Chekhov)

The concept of “Chekhov’s Gun” is a big one in storytelling. It says that:

  1. The flavors we introduce when telling a story should matter.

  2. We should only introduce flavors we plan to use.

  3. Thou shalt not waste flavor.

Okay, that’s not EXACTLY what Anton Chekhov said. But it’s pretty close.

He said that details planted in a story should contribute to plot, character, and tone. Details drive tension, and they shouldn’t be wasted.

Here’s a nice writeup from Nathan Baugh.

It’s a technique you’ve felt in action, even if you haven’t heard the term before:

Jaws:You screw around with these tanks, and they’re gonna blow up!” The shark’s demise was spelled out with this earlier line from the character of Hooper

Knives out: Explaining this one gives away everything. Quarter Turn tries to be a spoiler-free zone (except for movies as old as “Jaws”).

The Usual Suspects: From the start, we see the tackboard at Detective Kujan’s desk. We should have known.

The Sixth Sense: “I see dead people.” And we STILL didn’t see it coming (and by “we” I mean me).

Every intro of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul starts at the end, with a detail we don’t yet understand—but that we know will be meaningful later.

The internet’s full of advice and listicles on storytelling, and all of them tell you to include details.

It’s the vanilla ice cream of writing advice (sorry, vanilla fans).

The next time you use details, don’t use just anything. Remember Chekhov.

Use your flavors wisely.

(for examples of WASTING flavor, see “The Hobbit” movie trilogy)

I love a story where everything matters.

It puts your brain on the edge of its seat, and makes you attentive to every detail.

I’m watching a new show that’s like that.

It’s wasting no flavor at all—every detail matters, right down to a ballpoint pen.

You have to hand it to Apple TV (even if I’m conflicted on “Silo”). They tell an A+ story. Hijack operates at a nice rate of revelation, leaving me guessing—but never lost.

There is no room for confusion in Jaws.

It’s a story distilled to the essential tension between the shark and Amity Island. Between man and nature. Eater and eaten.

But the best thing about Jaws is what we know now: that its simplicity was an accident. That the movie it was supposed to be would have ruined it.

In honor of upcoming Shark Week, and Anton Chekhov:

Still curious?

Steven Spielberg talks Jaws, and Bruce

If you love Spielberg movies, then you love John Williams and you might enjoy this.

“A story without tension is a series of facts.” Read the rest here from Todd Brison.

🧠 and ❤️