‘Chekhov’s Gun’ is a concept that describes how every element of a story should contribute to the whole. It comes from Anton Chekhov’s famous book writing advice: ‘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.’
In other words, everything that is introduced in a story needs to have a function.
Who was Anton Chekhov? The origin of the term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian physician, author and playwright who lived from 1860 to 1904. Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the great masters of the short story (you can read several examples of Chekhov’s best stories here). Although Chekhov lived his life as a doctor, he managed to keep writing at the same time. He once said ‘Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’
The term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ comes from something Chekhov allegedly said in the 1880s (it was noted down by Ilia Gurliand): ‘If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act’. This has become an oft-repeated phrase in fiction and scriptwriting classes because it describes simply how a story needs to obey its own internal logic and honour its most powerful images.
What is the lesson behind Chekhov’s Gun?
The lesson behind Chekhov’s Gun is that your story should be cohesive. Each part should contribute to the whole in a way that makes sense. It does not mean that every single plot point of your story must be hugely significant. Some story elements function to create mood or describe setting. Yet each part of your story should correspond to the whole in at least a tangential way.
Using the Chekhov’s Gun idea like a pro
For example, a mention of cars on a busy street doesn’t create the assumption that a character is going to drive away in one of them or be run over. Cars on a street are commonplace and a normal thing to mention in the course of describing a city scene. Furthermore, if every object that you mention is imbued with a great deal of significance, you risk tipping off your reader about what will happen in the rest of the story.
However, an item must play an important role in the story when it is introduced to the reader in a way that suggests dramatic significance. This dramatic significance can be signaled in three ways. First, there are items like guns which are unusual in and of themselves in story contexts due to the way they symbolize violence and aggression.
Secondly, an item can become significant to your reader due to the way it is focused on. Someone’s wedding ring does not automatically shout dramatic significance, but if a point is made to mention or describe it in any detail, this signals to the reader that something related to the ring or marriage is bound to happen.
Finally, introducing something ordinary in an unexpected context suggests significance. For example, if a character turns up on a snowy day wearing a sundress, the reader expects an explanation.
In some types of fiction and mystery fiction in particular, red herrings – seemingly significant plot points- are scattered throughout a story to mislead the reader. However, even here, the principle of Chekhov’s Gun must apply. Red herrings cannot appear without their own causal relationship to the rest of the story.
If a suspect in chapter one has muddy shoes and blood on their hands and the victim is found stabbed in mud with footprints around them, then at some point we will need to know why the suspect was temporarily in these circumstances. Furthermore, you will want to introduce the real clues in such a way that when the reader goes back to look for them, they are all there, but their appearance in the story was subtle enough that most readers would have overlooked them.
Practical ways to implement Chekhov’s plotting concept
Now, in a more practical, hands-on sense, how can you apply the principle of Chekhov’s gun in your own writing?
- Get rid of false“guns” in your own writing. If you plot before starting to write, start searching for irrelevant guns in the outlining phase. If you make up your story as you go along, you must eliminate these oversignified elements when you revise.
- Remember that Chekhov’s gun refers not just to actual physical items. Scenes and characters, for example, can function this way. All the elements of a story must work together to move the story forward in significant ways. If they do not, then you must eliminate them. As another saying about writing goes, you sometimes must “murder your darlings” or eliminate some of your favourite parts for the overall good of the story.
- Use index cards or spreadsheets to identify the importance of major elements in each scene. Break down your scenes either before or after writing the first draft. Ask, ‘What is the overall significance of the scene?’ ‘What questions does it raise and answer?’ ‘Does it do more than one thing?’ ‘If it serves only a minor purpose, are there things you can do to make it more significant?’
- The principle of Chekhov’s gun can be particularly useful if you find yourself blocked while writing. Go back and take a look at what you have written so far. Do you see a “gun” anywhere in the story you might be able to use to pull the story together? Sometimes your unconscious will add things to a story that you will only realise the significance of later on.
Some writers will interpret Chekhov’s advice too literally, believing that absolutely every detail in a story needs to somehow play a significant role. In fact, applying the advice in this way will lead to a story that is both contrived and lifeless. Instead, use this concept to make sure your story is not littered with details that seem more important than they are.
Start creating a blueprint for your novel and get help from other writers. It’ll make sure that every gun in your novel – figurative or real – is in its place.
(Image from here )