What Is Chekhov’s Gun and How It Can Improve Your Story
by Alex Cabal
Chekhov’s Gun is an important literary principle that can help you sharpen your story. Read on to learn what it is and how to use it.
Who was Anton Chekhov?
Anton Chekhov was an author and playwright living in late 1800s Russia. Though he was a medical doctor by trade, his lasting fame comes from his short stories and plays. In fact he’s considered by many to be one of the greatest short story writers in history. He’s famous for once having said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”
What is Chekhov’s Gun?
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary principle stating that every element in a story must be necessary, and that unnecessary elements should be removed. If an element is introduced, it must be resolved by the end of the story–elements in a story should never make “false promises.”
The “gun” refers to how Chekhov described the principle in letters to his friends and colleagues:
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.
The “gun” doesn’t have to be a literal object like a gun on a table. It could be anything of heightened importance, like a monologue (don’t include pointless ones), a character (don’t introduce characters who won’t be mentioned again), or even an entire scene (don’t include scenes if they don’t develop characters or advance the plot).
In other words, don’t draw attention to something of heightened importance if it doesn’t actually turn out to be important to the plot very soon.
Chekhov’s Gun is all about setups and payoffs
The basic principle is related to the concept of setups and payoffs. Every setup (in other words, every element in your story) should have a payoff (a larger part to play in the plot or climax).
If you create a setup without a payoff, then you’ve probably just wasted the reader’s time. (But if you did it on purpose, you might have created a red herring, a legitimate literary device in the hands of a skilled writer.) In other words, if in the first act you mention that your character has the power to move objects with her mind, but then she never does, you’ve created a setup without a payoff: you’ve left Chekhov’s Gun loaded on the table, unused, and the reader is going to be very disappointed.
On the other hand, if you create a payoff without a setup, then you’ve created a deus ex machina–a literary device scorned by many as amateurish. For example if your story ends with your character triumphing over evil by stopping time, but you never mentioned that your character could do that, then you’ve fired Chekhov’s Gun without ever putting it on the table to begin with. The reader is going to be confused and might even feel cheated out of a satisfying ending.
How is Chekhov’s Gun different from foreshadowing?
Chekhov’s Gun is directly related to, but not the same as, foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is leaving subtle clues throughout the narrative that relate to a big reveal at the climax. The reader might not notice these subtle clues until the end, where they become obvious and satisfying. On the other hand, Chekhov’s Gun is immediately drawing attention to something so that the reader knows that it will be important later on. It’s a promise the author makes to the reader that what they’ve drawn attention to will eventually be worth noticing.
An example of Chekhov’s Gun vs. foreshadowing
In Shakespeare’s Othello, towards the end of the play Desdemona sings a song to her maidservant about a lover who goes mad, foreshadowing Othello’s descent into murderous, unthinking rage at the end of the play. This is foreshadowing: Dropping a subtle hint that predicts future events in the plot.
Compare that to Chekhov’s Gun, when in Act III of Othello Desdemona drops a handerkchief. Later on Iago finds the handkerchief and uses it to trick Othello into thinking Desdemona has been unfaithful. The “gun” is the handerchief: an element that Shakespeare has drawn our attention to, and which later on causes a critical turn in the plot. Can you see how strange and unsatisfying it would be if Shakespeare made a point to show that Desdemona dropped a handerchief, but then never mentioned it again?
Is Chekhov’s Gun the same as creating a setting?
Creating a believable, immersive setting is an important part of effective writing. But mentioning objects, sights, sounds, and other sensations to create a textured setting differs from the principal of Chekhov’s Gun in an important way: The details of a setting are not given heightened importance, while an item that could be a Chekhov’s Gun is explicitly emphasized as important by the writer.
You can emphasize an element by paying extra attention to describing it compared to the rest of the scene, or by making the element stand out as unusual in the scene’s context. For example, when your character enters a florist’s shop, mentioning the scent of flowers would be setting the scene–that’s to be expected at a florist’s. But mentioning a strange smell of ammonia would be creating a Chekhov’s Gun: you’ve drawn attention to an unusual element in the scene, and the reader now expects that element to play an important part in future events.
An example of Chekhov’s Gun vs. scene setting
Let’s say that your character is preparing for war, and she enters an armory to stock up on gear. Creating a setting would be describing the guns lined up on the wall, the dry tang of machine oil scenting the air, and the bright white lights casting hard shadows. All of these details are a fitting way to describe an armory, and the writer isn’t drawing special attention to any one of them. But to add a Chekhov’s Gun would be to mention the one especially large rifle sitting alone on a bench, gleaming menacingly as if inviting a bloodthirsty warrior to pick it up. Do you see the difference? We’ve created a setting by describing the armory, but we’ve drawn the reader’s attention to one particular object that the reader now expects will soon be an important part of the plot. If it wasn’t going to be, then why draw attention to it at all?
How to use Chekhov’s Gun to improve your story
Skillful use of Chekhov’s Gun means both purposefully using literary elements to create a sense of dramatic tension and payoff, while at the same time avoiding introducing elements that won’t play a part in the narrative.
1. Introduce important elements early
Carefully introduce elements early on in the narrative that will play a critical part in later acts. Maybe in the first act your character enters a library to check out a book, and spots an especially old, musty tome high on a shelf. When a portal opens in the library and monsters invade, the author fights them until she remembers the mysterious tome–which contains the spell to close the portal.
Don’t introduce critical elements at the last minute, because that creates a payoff without a setup. If your character enters the library and starts fighting monsters right away, then at the last minute spots a tome that magically closes the portal, the reader will be disappointed in the unsatisfying ending.
2. Cut elements that aren’t worth noticing
Don’t include elements that play no part in the narrative. Deliberately consider every single element in your story to decide if it’s important to the plot. Why did you draw attention to it? If you can’t answer that question, or if it’s not important to the plot, then cut it, because it wastes the reader’s time.
3. Judicious violation of Chekhov’s Gun can be exciting
Violating Chekhov’s Gun can result in a red herring, which can be used to mislead and surprise readers, or to introduce plot twists later on. This can be very effective in mystery and crime stories if done purposefully and skillfully. But be careful not to disappoint the reader!
4. Beware the temptation to overuse deep research
It’s common to do hours and hours of research before starting to write, and it can be really tempting to include every single fact you uncovered in your narrative. But doing so can cause a lot of unfired Chekhov’s Guns. Do your readers really need to know about the history of the Pony Express in a novel about the Civil War? If it’s not important to the story then resist the tempation to include it, no matter how fascinating the fact is and even if it took you hours to research to uncover.
Examples of Chekhov’s Gun in real books
Consider Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, where the Count Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in an elegant hotel. Early in the story he discovers a pair of dueling pistols hidden behind a wall: literal Chekhov’s Guns. In the climax of the novel, Rostov brandishes one of the pistols to intimidate the Bishop into handing over secret files in his office critical to the Count’s plans.
Towles mentioned the hidden pistols not just for the sake of it, but because they are meant to be a crucial plot point later in the story. Without the pistols, Rostov could never have intimidated the Bishop into revealing the files. But imagine if he had instead coincidentally discovered the pistols just in time: the reader would have been left very disappointed by the deus ex machina.
Or, consider J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone for a very long-lived gun. A bezoar is briefly mentioned in Harry’s first potions class. Then, in The Half Blood Prince, the sixth book in the series, that same bezoar is used to save Ron after he accidentally drinks a poisoned drink meant for Dumbledore. Now that’s a long time before the Chekhov’s Gun gets fired–but Rowling shoots it expertly!
Beta readers can help spot unused Chekhov’s Guns
Getting a group of trusted readers to review your story is a great way to spot potential Chekhov’s Guns that went unused. Ask your readers to note every time they felt a particular detail was brought to their attention. Then, you can review your story to see if that detail was actually important to the events or characters. If not, then carefully consider if you’ve left a Chekhov’s Gun lying unfired on the table.