building character, Chekhov's Gun, foreshadowing, props, tension building, what makes good fiction, world building, writer's tools, writing with props
One of the best tools for character building, world-building, tension building, and creating beats and foreshadowing. When used with purpose, it smooths over that drop into the dream and helps keep us there.
My favorite use is to replace dialogue tags and build character. Showing a character rub the hem of their shirt so much they rip a hole in the bottom creates an image, indicates nerves, and suggests a repeating habit. It shows their true feelings. This type of prop, when used with specific intent, can signal a certain emotion that relates scenes and build foreshadowing.
The more unusual the prop, the greater impression the character has on the reader, like a green, shoe-shaped stone that links a protagonist and her recurring savior. Or a metal tuning cuff around a boy’s ear, almost hidden beneath his hair, that he uses to hone his alchemy skills.
An equally important and better used prop will remind the reader of the world and the rules present. A silver charm with the dirt from a grave serves a twin purpose of pulling an old vampire myth to showcase genre and what type of rules govern these creatures. As a secondary element, it functions to remind readers of werewolves’ aversion to silver, especially if used in a fight.
A particularly tense scene might use a prop to build tension. A ring in a young man’s pocket, might feel like such a weighty object—one he brushes to ensure is still there, when he might have the confidence to ask the question, avoids when his conviction plummets; a prop can signify a defining moment.
Here’s a great example of real-life drama using props. A woman takes a pregnancy test and tricks her husband into finding it. The test stays front and center for most of the exchange as he tries to uncover her trickery until, finally, he comes to terms with the positive result. The test itself signals a wide variety of tension—shock, pain, denial, acceptance, humor, and ultimately the new addition to their loving family. The scene would not be the same without it.
Also, one can create foreshadowing in several ways, but foreshadowing with props is essentially using Chekhov’s Gun. This technique signals the significance of an object early on by the amount of attention it’s given. The rule is that it must be utilized by the end of Act II within the three-act structure and play an important role in the plot. Like a character finding a pendant in an old box of her mother’s things, which she recognizes in her mentor’s office and knows to use it help save a dozen kidnapped children.
I love props and how versatile they are for adding depth to a story. How do you use them in your writing? Tell me in the comments below.