by Eldred Bird
When I first heard the term Chekhov’s Gun used in a writing class, I’ll admit I thought it was a Russian firearm. Turns out I was way off base. Chekhov’s Gun is actually a double-edged sword (pun intended). Before I explain, let’s define this writing term.
Chekhov’s Gun is shorthand for a concept introduced by nineteenth-century author and playwright Anton Chekhov. It’s best summed up in his own words:
“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.”
“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.”
Basically, what he’s saying is cut anything from your writing that isn’t going to have an impact later in the story, leaving only those elements that are important to the narrative and will pay off at some point. There are limits to this, of course, so use good judgement.
So why do I say Chekhov’s Gun is a double-edged writing sword? Because the concept works as both an editing tool and a plotting device. Let’s take a look.
Chekhov’s gun is a great lens to view our work through when it comes time to edit the first draft. We can use this handy tool to help determine what to keep and what to cut.
Look at each element described and ask yourself these questions:
I’m not saying cut everything to the bare bones. We still need to set the stage to create a sense of place, time, and mood, but often we (or at least I) tend to overshoot the target.
When we list things off like eye and hair color, or specific articles of clothing, there should be a good reason we include those details.
This is usually where I end up making my biggest cuts. My stories are very character driven, so I like to get to know them on a deeper level. As a consequence, my first drafts are always packed with far more information about the character’s past than will ever come into play in the story. Here are some of the questions I ask when looking at backstory:
Again, I’m not saying to cut everything that doesn’t relate to the plot. We still need to build characters readers can relate to or they won’t care what happens to them. Just be judicious with the information that’s not driving the plot.
Plotting is where I believe Chekhov’s Gun really shines. It all comes down to the idea of planting an object or detail that will play an important part later in the story. Think of it as a way to plant seeds that will germinate later or foreshadow things to come.
In some ways, Chekhov’s Gun may sound similar to the MacGuffin, but the two function in very different ways. The MacGuffin’s purpose is to drive the plot forward throughout the story, whereas Chekhov’s Gun is a specific element that comes into play in a specific future situation.
Think of the MacGuffin as the car the characters are riding in. Chekhov’s Gun would be the squeaky brakes the protagonist was supposed to get fixed. The payoff happens ten miles down the road when a pedestrian steps off the curb in front of the car and the brakes fail.
One of my favorite uses of Chekhov’s Gun as a plotting tool comes from the movie The Fifth Element. Near the beginning of the movie, the main character pockets a box of matches with only one match left. We never see the box again until near the end of the movie, where everything they’ve been through comes down to that one match working.
I’ve used this tool in my own writing as well. In the third James McCarthy book, Cold Karma, James adopts a stray dog. For several chapters, it seems the dog doesn’t really serve any purpose (my critique partners told me to get rid of him), but in the end he plays a pivotal role in the capture of the antagonist.
No matter which way you use Chekhov’s Gun, it’s a handy tool to keep in your bag of tricks. But just like any other writing tool, we must be careful how we wield it. It’s possible to go overboard and cut too much detail when editing through this lens.
It’s also possible to plant too many seeds and crowd the garden when using it as a plotting device. The more elements you slip in, the more threads you’ll have to tie up in the end. If you’re like me, you may lose track of some of those threads and end up with some extra editing to deal with.
In the end, it’s all about finding a balance for your story.
Do you have a favorite use of Chekhov’s gun in books or movies? Have you used it in your own work? Let us know in the comments!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
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Years ago I had a writing teacher who used this principle but called it a "camel": any object integral to the story whose significance would become apparent only later, usually at the climax. He required the "camel" to be mentioned at least three times. For the next week's short-story exercise, I loved using an actual ceramic camel, first showing it on a tabletop, then having a character stroke it absent-mindedly, and finally having another character pitch it at the first character's head in the heat of an argument.
Great example, Anna!
That is super interesting, Anna.
Your car analogy for MacGuffin and Chekhov's Gun clarified the meanings for me. Thanks, Bob!
How about the Winchester rifle in Shaun of the Dead?
I loved The Fifth Element!
Thanks, Ellen. I love that the Winchester is Chekhov's gun in Shaun of the Dead. I wonder if the writer did that on purpose as a nod to Chekhov?
Bob, I'd never heard of Chekhov's Gun before you, so this was fascinating for me and really clarifies a problem I've always had with my opening scene. Thanks for explaining it so well!
We'll make a mystery writer out of you eventually!
It's especially important in short story where you can't afford to get carried away with details which would work better in a longer book.
I've always been unclear about Chekhov's Gun and the McGuffin. It's great to know these tools to add intrigue to any story. Thanks!
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