‘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 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.’
In other words, everything that is introduced in a story needs to have a function. Also called the Chekhov Gun Principle, this serves to make writing clearer and cut down on unnecessary details. There is an unspoken agreement between reader and writer: that a story will deliver on its premise. There should be no or very few extraneous details in a story. It’s also an excellent way to enhance plot development.
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 a master storyteller, one of the great aficionados of the short story. 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’ is a dramatic principle or plot device that 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 deliver implied, approaching revelations.
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.
This 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 events or objects you infer are significant should have this implied significance revealed.
It’s worth remembering that the ‘gun’ does not have to be an object: it could be something your characters say, the way they react to a situation or even character traits.
How to use Chekhov’s Gun like a pro
When using this literary principle take note that if you mention cars on a busy street, this doesn’t create the automatic assumption that they will play a significant part in the coming scene. Cars on a street are commonplace in describing a city scene. These are inconsequential details but necessary to include.
This is why it is wise to pass over inessential details more briefly than you linger on significant ones.
Outline a cohesive story
Create a story outline in easy, step-by-step prompts and build an overview of ideas for key scenes.LEARN MORE
Think about the dramatic significance of objects
An item must play an important role in the story when you introduce it to the reader in a way that suggests dramatic significance. There are three ways you might suggest dramatic significance:
- Showing an object that has inherent significance. For example, if your character holsters a gun before going out, we’re aware there may be a shootout later. Guns inherently signify the potential of violence and aggression (Paul Virilio said, ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck’. When you invent the gun, you invent the shootout.) This is a key device for creating suspense.
- Implying significance through the way you describe an object. An item may become significant to your reader due to the way you focus on it. Someone’s wedding ring does not automatically shout dramatic significance. Yet if you make a point to mention or describe it in any detail, this signals to the reader that something related to the ring (or maybe the character’s marriage) will happen.
- Introducing an ordinary object in an unusual context. For example, if a character turns up on a snowy day wearing a sundress, the reader expects an explanation. The object does not fit its context.
Be intentional with red herrings
In some types of fiction and mystery fiction in particular, authors foreground certain objects or symbols to mislead the reader deliberately. These are so-called ‘red herrings’, a legitimate literary device. In mystery, we use them to throw the detective (and reader) off the trail or send them down the wrong track in solving the mystery.
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 false suspect in chapter one has muddy shoes and blood on their hands, and your detective finds a victim in mud with footprints around them, then at some point you need to reveal why the first suspect wasn’t the murderer; reveal their alibi.
Practical ways to use Chekhov’s plotting concept
How can you apply the principle of Chekhov’s gun in your own writing?
- Get rid of false guns. Start searching for irrelevant ‘guns’ in the outlining phase. If you’re more of a pantser, check for details that you’ve given a misleading or frustrating sense of undue significance when you’re revising.
- Think of scenes and characters in a similar way. Not only objects may function like the gun that doesn’t go off. Scenes and characters, for example, can also seem superfluous if they don’t contribute to the whole. All the elements of a story must work together to move the story forward in significant ways.
- Use index cards or spreadsheets to identify the importance of major elements in each scene. Ask, ‘What is the overall significance of the scene?’ And, ‘What questions does it raise or answer in my reader?’
You could interpret Chekhov’s advice too literally, and try to make every minute detail in a story play a significant role. Applying Chekhov’s advice this way could lead to a story that is both contrived and lifeless.
While examining this topic, you might be asking what the difference is between foreshadowing and Chekhov’s gun.
In foreshadowing a writer drops hints of what might come or hint at a plot twist. This is in contrast to ensuring that your story has an internal logic.
Plot and outline significant scenes around characters’ goals, motivations, and the conflicts these bring. Balance action and narration. Use the occasional loaded object (be it a gun or something else) in balance with all the other elements of what makes a good story.
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.