Chekhov’s Gun is an important literary principle that can help you sharpen your writing. It can be applied to any kind of story, from short stories to novels. Read on to learn what it is and how to use it.
What is Chekhov’s Gun?
Chekhov’s Gun is a writing 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 last act—in other words, elements in a story should never make “false promises.” Sometimes you’ll see it spelled “Chekov’s Gun”, without the h.
The “gun” refers to how Anton 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 rifle hanging on the wall. 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.
Who coined the term Chekhov’s gun?
It was Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright and author from the late 1800s, who coined the term “Chekhov’s Gun.” Though he was a medical doctor by trade, Chekhov wrote so many short stories and plays that his literary output is what gave him lasting fame. 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.”
Why does Chekhov’s Gun work?
The basic principle behind Chekhov’s Gun is 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).
A setup creates dramatic tension, and a payoff relieves that tension. This cycle of tension and relief is key to writing that makes the reader want to keep reading.
On the other hand, 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—more on that later.)
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 plot 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 to the story.
Truly skilled story telling is mastering the concept of creating setups and delivering payoffs. Chekhov’s Gun is another way of thinking of that principle.
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 a plot device that immediately draws 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 be important later on.
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 handkerchief. Later on Iago finds the handkerchief and uses it to trick Othello into thinking Desdemona has been unfaithful. The “gun” is the handkerchief: 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 handkerchief, 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: Scene-setting is skillful use of extraneous details—details that are not given heightened importance—while using Chekhov’s Gun is focusing on an item that is explicitly emphasized as important.
In other words, the details in a setting are inconsequential details: they’re there to lend an important flavor to the scene, but aren’t critical to the overall narrative.
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 in an unusual 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 thinks of the element as a plot device that will 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.
Adding the Chekhov’s Gun principle 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 detail 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?
Is Chekhov’s gun a trope?
Yes, Chekhov’s Gun a kind of trope, or literary device, that writers use to create effective narrative.
It’s one of the many tools in your writing toolbox that you can use to add narrative significance, work on character development, and propel plot development. But it’s just one of the many tools you have at your disposal. Don’t rely only on Chekhov’s Gun to create interest and tension in your own writing—keep in mind the rich set of tropes, devices, and literary elements you can draw from to give life to your story.
What’s the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun?
If Chekhov’s Gun works to create a sense of tension by creating a setup and then delivering a payoff, then the opposite of that must be either creating a payoff without a setup—called a deus ex machina—or creating a setup, but not delivering, called either red herrings or loose ends.
Deus ex machina is a payoff without a setup
A deus ex machina is a Greek term meaning “god from a machine.” In old Greek plays, it was common for the main character to be saved from their troubles by a Greek god appearing from behind the curtain to magically solve all of their problems.
Then, as now, that kind of ending is seen as cheap and unsatisfying, because the author has broken the unspoken agreement of Chekhov’s Gun: they’ve put the payoff before the setup. The god appeared from nowhere to deliver the payoff, but the god’s appearance was never set up by the writer to begin with. Amateurish!
Red herrings are deliberate setups without payoffs
Red herrings are when a writer deliberately creates a setup without a payoff in order to misdirect the reader. They’re most often found in mystery novels, where the writer wants to distract the reader with a false clue, so that when the real twist is revealed, the sense of surprise is heightened.
Red herrings can be very effective in the hands of a talented writer, but if you bring the reader’s attention to a red herring and then forget the actual payoff, they become a frustration instead of surprise.
Loose ends are accidental setups without payoffs
Loose ends, on the other hand, are never a legitimate writing tool. Rather, they’re the mark of sloppy or poorly-planned writing. Loose ends are Guns that the writer has drawn the reader’s attention to, but has then forgotten to wrap up before the last act.
Many writers fall prey to loose ends as they work on a sprawling story, because it can be natural to forget a detail if things aren’t planned in advance.
But loose ends must be avoided at all costs. Pay close attention to always deliver the payoff!
How to use Chekhov’s Gun in your story
Can Chekhov’s Gun improve your writing? The answer is absolutely—in fact, it’s a critical dramatic principle that can help create that all-important part of an effective narrative: tension.
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.
Here are some practical ways to use Chekhov’s Gun to enhance your own writing:
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 chapter 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 character fights them through the second or third chapter—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 red herrings can just as often annoy the reader. There’s nothing worse than seeing a setup and expecting a payoff, but being disappointed when none occurs!
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 leave a lot of false guns in your writing.
Do your readers really need to know about the history of the Pony Express in a novel about the Civil War? If a fact isn’t important to the story, then resist the temptation to include it, no matter how fascinating it is, and even if it took you hours of research to uncover.
Examples of Chekhov’s Gun
A perfect example of Chekhov’s Gun in action is 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 that are 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.
Other examples of Chekhov’s Gun can be found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and in the Hunger Games series.
In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, a “bezoar” is briefly mentioned in Harry’s first potions class. Then, we don’t hear about it again until the sixth book in the series, The Half Blood Prince, where that same bezoar is used to save Ron after he accidentally drinks poison.
The time between the setup and payoff is so long that the reader might be tempted to think that the bezoar was really a red herring. But Rowling knows what she’s doing, and she shoots Chekhov’s Gun expertly!
In the Hunger Games, it’s repeatedly emphasized that the main character, Katniss, has detailed knowledge of poisonous plants. This knowledge stays in the background of the reader’s mind until the last act, when she’s double-crossed by the Gamemakers and has to use her knowledge of poisons to trick them into thinking she’s going to commit suicide with “poisonous” berries.
Of course, those berries are just a trick—and Katniss survives to triumph as one of the Games’ victors.
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 any false guns lying around, unfired.
Remember Anton Chekhov as you develop your narrative
As you write your novel, short story, or other narrative, remember that Chekhov’s Gun is a critical writing principle in a well-told overall story, serving to generate that all-important feeling in a narrative: dramatic tension.
Anton Chekhov was a master storyteller, famous not only in his day but centuries later. It’s wise to keep Chekhov’s advice in mind: don’t forget that every setup requires a payoff, and don’t create red herrings or loose ends by leaving the pistol hanging on the wall!