‘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.
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 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.
How to use Chekhov’s Gun like a pro
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.
This is why it is wise to pass over inessential details more briefly than you linger on significant ones.
Outline a cohesive story
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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’. 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.
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.
26 replies on “Chekhov’s Gun: What it is and how to use it like a pro”
>> I believe that you meant subconscious rather than unconscious in the last bullet point.
Considering she was talking about guns, and you’re talking about bullets– unconscious (or worse) might actually be more apropos… 🙂
Great catch, John. That is absolutely correct as the subconscious is more the psychological complex consisting of the id, ego etc. Although the Oxford definition does make interchangeable usage a grey area, giving ‘of or concerning the part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings’ (so technically this not-conscious part of mind could perhaps influence the creative act of writing). I’ve updated the post regardless as I think it is more apropos and how the term is more typically used. Thank you for the feedback and for reading our blog.
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I think it’s very easy to misinterpret Chekhov’s Gun because such a specific example is given. The gun doesn’t have to go off to be relevant yet that is a surefire way to make it relevant.
I think a subtler issue is that certain background features may suggest impending drama more strongly than others and may protrude when introduced.
I believe there is also an issue if you sometimes have too big a gap between introducing a person or object and then using it. There’s a point at which you can tire people and exhaust their capacity to keep track of everything.
In story writing it is generally a good idea to declutter. There can be a tendency to inject a lot of unnecessary detail into a story to fatten it up. This might be good for the world count but bad for the story.
I believe the worst case of this is when certain things are added to the story to give the impression of it having things in it that would attract an audience only for it to fall short. What we’re really talking about here is a kind of false advertising.
Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful comment, John. I agree that ‘decluttering’ is a good way to avoid guns firing blanks, although I suppose in some styles of writing you can load a text with significance while never getting to the big, smoking gun reveal (I’m thinking of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 here which builds and builds and ends on a cliffhanger – though this is a fairly postmodern gambit and would likely alienate readers who want a more conventional ending from a story).
‘False advertising’ is definitely something to be careful of, especially in certain types of genre fiction that are more templated in general features (e.g. feel-good romance should have a happily ever after or happy for now ending, or one should not market it as such). Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
The introduced gun could just easily be conspicuously absent at some point. The hero reaches for the gun, but…..
That’s a great point, Brian. If it were a literal gun that could be plausible in a range of circumstances. On a metaphorical level, the gun would still ‘go off’ since it being integral to the plot events (it appearing for a reason) would still be there in the suspense the author created around the gun’s disappearance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.