The term Chekhov’s Gun refers to a literary technique built around playwright Anton Chekhov’s assertion that, “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.” (This quote is found in endless variations. This particular version is from Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No 28, July 11, p. 521)
Though this pearl of wisdom may be quite clear and helpful to you the next time you find yourself designing the set for your local community theater’s production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, perhaps you are currently wondering how Chekhov’s advice could possibly benefit you as a novelist.
First, let’s analyze what Chekhov’s Gun is NOT. Although the technique is often mistaken for advice concerning foreshadowing, seeing it as such is a bit backwards. Chekhov’s advice is less concerned with what should be included to hint at the coming events (what we generally think of as foreshadowing) than it is with what should not be included. Without going too far into a discussion of foreshadowing – a technique worthy of its own post for another day – I think we can agree that true foreshadowing concerns references to plot elements, characters, or even eventual outcomes in the conflict that are made early in a story with seeming insignificance. If Chekhov’s Gun were truly a technique concerning foreshadowing, Anton Chekhov might have said something more like, “If a pistol will be fired in the second act, it ought to be hung on the wall in the first act.”
Instead, Chekhov’s Gun is more a warning against unnecessary clutter in your story. Chekhov is advising us writers against frivolous detail. Let’s look at his literal example of the gun again. In Chekhov’s play, UNCLE VANYA, a handgun appears as a seemingly meaningless prop early on in the action. However, its presence on the stage becomes much more significant late in the drama when the character of Uncle Vanya grabs the pistol and tries to murder another character in a rage.
If we look at this example of Chekhov’s own implementation of Chekhov’s Gun, we witness what is often thought of as “economy of detail.” For us as novelists, “economy of detail” can be used to keep our writing tight. Utilizing the technique of Chekhov’s Gun helps to maintain tight stories, tight scenes, and even tight paragraphs.
Often, our first draft will contain lots of extraneous “firearms” lying about. For an example, I can point to a recent cut I made in the first chapter of my current WIP. Originally, I planned that the arrival of an older relative would cause the teenaged main character to be forced by her parents to play the piano and sing. I imagined this to be a family ritual (one that, I must admit, I took from my own life experience. Ugh…)
I wrote this scene into the first draft. I intended this performance to have meaning later in the story. However, I changed my mind about later events, and now there was no real purpose for this “command performance” by my MC, accept for the fact that it revealed a bit of her character. Otherwise, it did nothing to move the story forward, and, in fact, slowed the pace of the all-important opening of the story.
Still, I hated to cut it. After all, I’d ruminated quite a bit on this particular experience as I’d developed my ideas about this character. I imagined this ritual humiliation at the hands of her family as quite significant. Yet, when I re-read the draft, I realized it was meaningless to the story as a whole. The piano, her singing, her embarrassment – none of it had any significance at all once the later part of the draft had been rewritten. I realized this scene was an extraneous pistol hanging on the wall. So I cut it. (It wasn’t easy, of course. I often quote the truism that as writers, we are forced to “kill our darlings.” As meaningless and distracting as it was, I loved this little scene. So I cut and pasted it into a character study about my main character. Now it can live on, if only for me.)
Any discussion of Chekhov’s Gun inevitably leads to thoughts of the opposite technique – the technique of the Red Herring. Writers of mysteries, especially, may be wondering how the technique of Chekhov’s Gun can coexist with the technique of the Red Herring, which is a plot device that is intentionally designed to divert attention. For example, in a mystery, attention may be drawn away from the truly guilty character by deceptively casting an innocent character in a suspicious light.
But when a Red Herring is employed, it isn’t extraneous clutter at all. It is in the story for a genuine and necessary purpose, although that purpose might be to divert the reader’s attention from the true direction of the story. The use of a Red Herring may, in the most literal sense, break the rule of Chekhov’s Gun, in that there may be “a pistol hung on the wall” in an early scene that will not, in fact, be fired in a later scene. But when the rule of Chekhov’s Gun is considered to encompass the idea of “economy of detail,” then the “pistol” used as a Red Herring fits within the rule, as it is “hung on the wall” for a willful purpose. Eventually, the reader will understand why the “pistol” was there all along.
Can you think of stories that neglected the rule of Chekhov’s Gun? (Many times a television series is cancelled before “the pistol hung on the wall” gets the chance to go off!) Have you ever had to cut a scene because it distracted your story’s progress and broke the rule of Chekhov’s Gun? Do you think there are good exceptions to this rule? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!