Chekhov’s Gun: What it is and what it means to your writing

Imagine this scenario. You’re at home, sitting comfortably on the couch, watching a movie. Let’s pretend its Jurassic World. Do you have pants on in this scenario? You do not.

Imagine there’s a scene in the movie where two young children have a four minute conversation about their parents upcoming divorce. Let’s further pretend it’s a very dramatic scene. Lastly, let’s pretend the divorce is never again mentioned in the run time of the movie.

This is an actual problem with Jurassic World. This is a real scene, this is a real problem. And it’s a wonderful example of the writing concept I’d like to dive into today called “Chekhov’s gun”

What is Chekhov’s Gun?

I’m going to let Wikipedia write this article for me:

Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed; elements should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play. The statement is recorded in letters by Anton Chekhov several times, with some variation:

  • “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.”
  • “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
  • “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” 

The simple rule is – don’t introduce narrative elements that don’t mean anything to the story. If you introduce the gun in act one it must fire.

What does this mean for my writing?

Let’s go back to the Jurassic World example. The screenwriters introduced a backstory to the characters, but nothing came of it. The parents divorce never factors into the story. It was inserted as a scene to introduce cheap, unearned dramatic tension in the form of sympathy, but without any narrative payoff,

They made a promise to the viewer, and they broke it.

Some of you might be thinking “So what are you saying? My character can’t have any backstory?”

No! I’m not saying that! Your character absolutely can, and should have backstory, but you only need to introduce backstory that is relevant to the plot.

Here: Let’s pretend you’re writing a book about Aliens who come to conquer Earth but are defeated by ice cream.

aliens and icecream
In your upcoming best-selling novel “Aliens and Ice Cream”

In this hypothetical book, your main character is “Tug Strongrock.” He is an ex-CIA agent, struggling with alcoholism with an encyclopedic knowledge of ice cream flavors. Based on that character introduction, I would expect:

  • His CIA agent skills will play a front and center role in the story, otherwise, why make him a CIA agent? Why not a dentist? Why not a teacher? You’re the one who picked his background.
  • His alcoholism must be a plot point. Either he needs to choose saving someone over alcohol, or he needs to get into trouble because of it, or it needs to prevent him from doing something, or he needs to overcome it. Something.  It needs to fit into his character arc.
  • His encyclopedic knowledge of ice cream should be the final piece of the puzzle that defeats the aliens. “Ah ha” he should say. “We know that vanilla has no effect against the aliens, but what if we use… NEAPOLITAN!”

But what if he’s also a gifted piano player? You might be saying to your computer.  I really want to round out the character.

Sorry, you can’t include it. Unless he defeats the aliens by playing piano, that detail of his backstory must be excluded.

Think of it this way. You’re the author. Every single word on the page is your decision. If Tug Strongrock was a real, live breathing person, he’d have millions of elements to his backstory – he had a girlfriend who had an abortion when he was 17. He once got into a fight with a bouncer when he was 22. His favorite TV show is Dr. Who. He loves Rolling Stones over the Beatles. He hates when people call “white” a color, because it’s actually a shade. His Uncle once took him fishing and they didn’t catch anything, but it was one of his favorite memories. He wishes he spent more time doing crossword puzzles. He hates Macs and is a PC guy. His favorite card game is Euker. He hates video games, but has a secret addiction to Candy Crush. His favorite actress is Diane Keaton. He hates apples, but loves blueberries. He thinks tipping is stupid.

And on and on and on. Do you see the point? A real person has an infinite backstory. You chose to surface three facts about him and leave the rest off the page. You’re the author. You did this.  You made a promise to the reader.

What if I introduce plot points that go nowhere?

You’re left with a story that is cheating in one of two ways:

Version 1: The gun is on the mantelpiece but it doesn’t fire.
What is the result: The reader feels confused and feels like they missed something. Even if its subconscious, the reader will finish the book feeling like it was unresolved. And they’re right. You – the author, the person who controls everything – introduced a plot point that goes nowhere.  You broke a promise.

Version 2: There is no gun, but it fires anyway.
What is the result: The literary opposite of Chekhov’s gun, it’s called a Duex Ex Machina (literally translated as God from the Machinery).  It’s “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel”.

The most famous example of this is the giant Eagles at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that show up from nowhere to save the day.  It’s unearned drama.  Other examples are the water from Signs. The germs from War of the Worlds. The literal hand of God that detonates the bomb at the end of Stephen King’s “The Stand”. The entire ending to “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton. And on and on.

Okay, I get it.  What’s the big takeaway?

Only this.

  • Any element you introduce in the first act has to have meaning to the plot.
  • Any element used to resolve the narrative in the third act must have been introduced in the first act.

Those are the rules. You can go ahead and break the, but at least be aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  But my advice is to be better than that.

Keep your promises to your readers.  They’ll thank you for it.

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