What is Chekhov's Gun?
Chekhov's Gun is a storytelling principle that tells us that anything that is made to seem important in a story must contribute to the narrative by the end of the story.
Have you ever read (or written) a story where something really neat was introduced or a seemingly inconspicuous item was described in strangely intricate detail? Odds are, that neat or emphasized thing played an important role by the end of the story.
But imagine if it didn’t.
Imagine if I wrote a book and spent a page or more describing how detailed, colorful, and unique an inherited ceramic doll was. I spent a good chunk of book real estate introducing this doll and painting it in your mind. Now what if that doll contributed absolutely nothing to the plot or even the scene?
Odds are, you would wonder why the heck I’m so obsessed with dolls and feel like I wasted your time. This is what Chekhov's Gun helps us avoid.
In this article, we’re going to cover:
- Who created Chekhov’s Gun
- How this writing principle works
- How Chekhov’s Gun improves your story
- The difference between Chekhov’s Gun and foreshadowing
- Ways you can use Chekhov’s Gun
Who created Chekhov's Gun?
Born in Russia in 1860, Anton Chekhov was one of the most influential and well-known playwrights and short-story authors of his time. A doctor by trade, Chekhov hilariously said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and writing is my mistress.”
Chekhov’s most famous works included The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. It was in the former where his own principle, Chekhov’s Gun, comes into play. In The Seagull, Konstantin uses a rifle to kill a seagull. By the end of the play, the same rifle that he brandished on stage and used to kill the bird is turned on himself in an act of suicide.
How does Chekhov's Gun work?
First things first, it’s important to understand that Chekhov’s Gun isn’t a literary device like a metaphor. It isn’t something that you consciously include in your writing. Rather, it is a principle that should guide all writing to help remove superfluous and meaningless details.
To more succinctly describe Chekhov’s Gun, Chekhov himself explained that a pistol hanging on the wall in Act One should be fired in Act Three. This is a way to say that drawing attention to a particular item, person, etc. in your story must play a role later on in the story.
How does Chekhov's Gun improve your story?
Even though Chekhov coined this writing principle through his work on plays, it applies to all mediums of storytelling. Chekhov’s Gun is so important because it limits the amount of unnecessary fluff in your writing.
Does your villain have a very specific tattoo just for the sake of having a very specific tattoo?
Does your hero mention they were an orphan only to never show how that childhood impacted them?
Is there a single book on a bookshelf that stands out because of its purple spine with golden letters but is never opened or touched?
These are details you are signaling to your reader as meaningful, as things that they should remember or take note of. But if they make that room in their very busy minds for such details only to have it never turn into anything, then you’re going to end up quickly disappointing your audience.
It’s almost as if there is an unspoken agreement between a writer and a reader. If an item or person is noticeable—not even necessarily emphasized by the writer but noticeable enough to stand out from the crowd—then there should be a payoff for noticing that detail.
Without that payoff, you’ll likely end up on the DNF list of many readers (see a recreation of my own DNF pile below).
That doesn’t mean you can’t describe settings or items with some detail. The air could be so humid that it’s hard to breathe, but if you state that there are strange floating lights in the air that disappear whenever you look right at them, then the reader will eventually want to know what’s up with those lights.
Is Chekhov's Gun foreshadowing?
As mentioned before, Chekhov’s Gun is not a literary device but a principle of good writing. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, is a literary device used to tease a plot twist or reveal later on in the book.
With foreshadowing, you are intentionally leaving hints that can point to the big reveal but are often missed by your audience the first time they read your story. Discovering those hints can be extremely rewarding and lead to a satisfying aha moment when you piece together how all those hints actually revealed the twist all along.
Chekhov’s Gun isn’t about leaving hints. It does, however, help with foreshadowing by making the hints pay off in the end. Foreshadowing is a perfect example of Chekhov’s Gun; seemingly unneeded details have an important purpose to the plot.
That being said, Chekhov’s Gun applies to more than just foreshadowing.
Practical ways to use Chekhov's Gun
We all know writing—especially writing well—isn’t easy. So here are some ways to use the principle of Chekhov’s Gun in your own writing and ensure your readers aren’t disappointed.
Shine a spotlight
The easiest way to indicate something is important to the plot is to add emphasis to it. By spending more time explaining an item or adding extra details to it, you are signaling to your readers the item is worth noticing. This doesn’t have to be explicit and take up a bunch of pages. Instead, it can just be giving something a unique color or trait.
The same goes for characters. By including a specific character in a scene or giving them a piece of dialogue with a particular detail in it, that character can become an important part of your overall story later on. This is like the butler or coworker who is interviewed at the beginning of a crime show on TV. They inevitably come back as the murderer or the one who helps reveal who the murderer is. At the very least, such a character provides a clue that leads to a subsequent scene. Imagine if you had to read or watch a suspect interview that did not push the investigation forward at all?
Include notable items
There are things in our everyday life that are innately notable. Take the pistol hanging on the wall that Chekhov himself used as an example. Guns are powerful, scary items. They can take a life. If a character walks in with a gun in their hand, it is immediately noticeable without any extra detail being added to it.
Other notable items might include expensive items (jewelry, cars, jets, etc.), religious or spiritual items (a witch’s grimoire, a holy relic, an old bible), other weapons, and so on.
These things can be used to just set the scene, especially depending on your genre and setting, but including them in a way that catches the reader’s attention means that they should connect to the plot somehow.
Identify your “guns”
While revising your first (or fifteenth) draft, identify your own pistols hanging on the wall. Read for details that stand out in your writing. Extend this thinking to characters and scenes, too. Luckily for you, Dabble has a built-in section for notes where you can keep track of your guns.
Do you have a fight scene against a giant monster just for the sake of having a fight scene? I'm asking for a friend, not because that’s exactly what I’ve done in the past.
Be objective about whether these details are relevant to the plot or if you just got on a roll and added them in a blaze of artistic creativity.
Break the rules sometimes
A red herring is a type of literary device where you include a detail to intentionally mislead your reader."
But Doug," you gasp, "that breaks the rules of Chekhov’s Gun!"
"Yes," I answer without gasping, "it does.
"A red herring is a very effective device, especially in mysteries and thrillers. You can break the rules set up by Chekhov’s Gun to add extra detail into your story and bring that story to life. A book where there were no superfluous details would be really boring, to be honest. But you can only break the rules if breaking them isn’t going to ruin the book for your reader.
It is crucial for writers to understand Chekhov’s Gun and how the details you include affect your readers. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you can go forth and make your book just a little bit better.
And while you’re at it, make it even more amazing by writing it in Dabble with our 14-day free trial. Keep track of notes, characters, your plot, and more in a beautiful, modern platform made by writers for writers.
No pistols are hanging on the walls in your free trial, we promise. Not unless you put them there.
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