Chekhov’s Gun – How to Make this Technique Work for You

22 Nov

by Julie Eshbaugh

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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!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

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28 Responses to “Chekhov’s Gun – How to Make this Technique Work for You”

  1. Meagan Spooner November 22, 2010 at 12:40 AM #

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves in fiction, both unpublished and published. I hate it when authors introduce something that seems like it carries weight and significance enough to come back later, but doesn’t. It feels like cheating!

    I do think you’re right, the trick to a successful red herring is to make said herring significant to the story in the end–just not in the way the reader might think. It makes the “twist” in the story that much more awesome.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 12:52 AM #

      Hey Meg! I’m glad you liked the post! I agree; I can’t stand that subplot or loose end that is just left hanging! GRRR! I think when that happens in a published book, it might be the result of careless revising. But the well explained red herring can be a great pay-off! Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  2. Lindsay November 22, 2010 at 1:26 AM #

    I’ll agree with Meagan. The worst is when you are reading a book and you see ‘the gun’. You think to yourself how much fun it is going to be when ‘the gun’ goes off with a big bang and disrupts the story, except that it never happens and that fun little bit is ignored. Some of my favorite pieces in my own writing have later turned into useless guns that it no longer makes sense to keep. A good red pen should always be on hand!

    Sorry you had to cut that part in your book. It sounds like our piano experiences are remarkably similar, but I was sometimes forced to sing too. Ugg.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 1:55 AM #

      Hey Lindsay! I agree with your red pen rule! And thanks for sympathizing with the pain of cutting that scene; maybe I’ll work it in somewhere else where it doesn’t need to carry weight. (It was setting up a future event that no longer takes place.) And LOL how many kids have been forced into these private recitals! I’m glad we can share each other’s pain. 😉

  3. M. Howalt November 22, 2010 at 7:29 AM #

    Really well-written article and do agree with you. For a first draft, I think it’s fine to just go where the story and your ideas take you, but when the revision is finally done, everything should be deliberate and have a purpose. Even if you have to, unfortunately, kill a few “darlings” in the process.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 10:30 AM #

      Hi M! I agree that it’s the revision stage where the tightening really needs to happen. Poor “darlings” LOL. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. Victoria Dixon November 22, 2010 at 9:02 AM #

    Hi, Julie. Nice post. The great thing about your darlings is, they’re never really dead. They can always be resurrected for the next time you have a character who needs to be embarrassed. ;D

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 10:32 AM #

      Hi Victoria! This is true; now that I know that the “family recital” seems to be a fairly common experience, I think that scene will resurface somewhere. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  5. authorguy November 22, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

    I would imagine this is more of a problem for ‘plotters’. As a pantser, I usually have to go back and put my guns in, after I come up with a brilliant idea and now have to set it up.

    A similar problem, by the way, can occur on a grammatical level as well. I was talking with a fellow author about character names, and the use of Replace All to change them. The problem with Replace All is that it can change things you don’t want changed. In this context the problem is replacing a name that doesn’t end in a sybillant with one that does, which means that now your MS has a lot of unnecessary Ss after apostrophes. Not quite what you had in mind, I guess, but another sign of a change in the MS that wasn’t carried through completely.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 10:36 AM #

      OMGosh I know EXACTLY what you mean about the Replace All function! Once I was reading a skit that was posted on the internet, and one of the characters was named Tim. The writer must have decided to replace the “tags” at the start of the dialogue sections with the names in all caps. So every instance of the combination of letters “tim” ended up “TIM.” It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t supposed to be symbolic that the word “time” was always written “TIMe.” UGH! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  6. Rowenna November 22, 2010 at 10:31 AM #

    Great post, Julie–Chekov’s gun has always been a favorite maxim of mine. Though, I do think of that gun as not necessarily needing to be fired–perhaps there’s a willful decision not to fire it, or it falls and hits someone on the head, or it turns out to be a water pistol all along. The point is you have to introduce things for a reason–but subtly enough to build tension naturally (so hang it on a wall…nothing like a character picking up a gun and saying “Wow, someone could kill someone with this maybe in the dining room with Professor Plum at midnight…I mean…”)

    One of the reasons I started to lose interest in Lost, which had been one of my favorite shows, was how many things were introduced and not sufficiently explored, or didn’t end up having enough consequence. That’s debateable, of course, because I know some people were completely content with how the show handled its myriad details. Maybe it’s a pacing thing, too–you can’t let your reader forget about the gun before you have it firing.

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 10:40 AM #

      Hey Rowenna! I thought of LOST while I was writing this, as well! I know that with that series there were quite a few Red Herrings as well as Chekhov’s Guns in order to keep the audience guessing. But what you say is very true. Even if it will eventually turn out to be a water pistol, tie it up somehow. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  7. Rosie G November 22, 2010 at 11:23 AM #

    Hey, great post!

    It actually took me forever to really grasp this concept and was thinking things like ‘but what if you just want to describe a room and say oh there’s a bookshelf’ that wouldn’t be important to the plot but it would put your character in a place. Then realised it would probably would count as an important because it would allow the reader to know something about the character i.e. they read a lot. So therefore it is a relevant fact and would be used. OK so i don’t know why i needed to voice this thought but it has definately given me something to think about 😀
    p.s. I also have shared the family recital pain!! 😉

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 1:04 PM #

      Hey Rosie!!! Great to get a comment from you! You make a good point (despite the fact you don’t seem to think so!) when you mention the bookshelf. Description is a funny thing, really, because it can add a lot but also slow the pacing if it isn’t handled just right. I think your comment that mentioning a bookshelf does in fact serve a purpose since it reveals the character’s interest in reading is a great observation. Description is valuable, but it ought to reveal as much as possible so that the writing is as effective and lean as possible. Thanks for commenting!!! 🙂

  8. Rachael Harrie November 22, 2010 at 6:51 PM #

    Hi Julie, great post. I’m working on my first chapter at the moment, I have a scene I really like but it doesn’t add a huge amount to the story, so I’m steeling myself to get out those scissors 😦

    Rach

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 22, 2010 at 8:14 PM #

      Hey Rach! Don’t worry too much about what might get cut from that first draft! You might find out that something that seems irrelevant now becomes significant in a later chapter, or even in a later draft. But you are right; SOMETHING will inevitably be cut. Hopefully, it won’t be something you’ve become very attached to. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  9. Alex May 17, 2011 at 11:28 AM #

    Cool article. I love Chekhov’s gun for more than the whole ‘efficient writing’ thing though. It always works as a great comedy device or as a way to make audiences go “OOOH YEAH!”… my examples are from movies, because I’m an aspiring screenwriter, but yeah.

    A common use of it (this might not technically be Chekhov’s gun because it doesn’t really refer to a specific object or anything) but in Star Wars, Han Solo doesn’t want to help the Rebel Alliance take on the Death Star because he’s selfish, arrogant, out for the money, etc, but at the end it’s Han Solo who saves Luke from Vader. This is so well done because it’s in Han’s character to not go to the Death Star in the first place, but it sets up his friendship with Luke for the later films, but also (perhaps more importantly) the audience is distracted by the amazing battle and all hope seems to be lost, but heyo! the coolest character in the movie has had a change of heart and he’s here to save the day! That makes the audience go HELL YEAH!

    Secondly, for comedy, my favourite example is in Hot Fuzz. Early in the movie when the other coppers are taking the mickey out of the protagonist (Nicholas Angel), we see him dealing with a local resident about a missing swan. It’s funny here because he’s a hotshot London cop and he has to try and find this swan, ha ha. The swan then goes away for the rest of the film until the climax (again, the audience is distracted by a high speed car chase) and it’s the swan who eventually causes the bad guy to be caught. It’s a really great way to tie the whole thing up and (in my opinion) it makes the hilarious idea of a swan being responsible for stopping the villain as vaguely realistic (at least within the film’s universe)

    Anyway, sorry for the super long post, but I just thought that I’d express how my love for Chekhov’s Gun goes beyond the efficiency rule

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 18, 2011 at 12:38 PM #

      Hey Alex! No need to apologize for the long comment; those examples are fantastic and greatly appreciated! 🙂 And please note – any example that involves Star Wars is ALWAYS welcome. 😉 Thanks for your comment!

  10. john of sparta July 8, 2013 at 9:08 PM #

    interesting….Rowenna +1.
    the ‘gun’ is ALWAYS a threat.
    it doesn’t ever Have To Be fired.
    Chekhov was wrong.

  11. Samuel July 19, 2014 at 9:34 PM #

    Just once, I’d like a James Bond movie where one of Q’s gadgets go entirely unused and unmentioned: the reverse Chekhov’s gun! We could give it an awesome name, like Chekhovian backfire.

    The idea being that the audience is anticipating the unloading of Chekhov’s gun and it never comes. It doesn’t serve much purpose for the story but I’d be very funny and it would get people talking.

    I don’t know why I think such terrible things.

    • Samuel July 19, 2014 at 9:35 PM #

      Wow, I should really proof read replies before posting them.

      • Ryan Ellis Boyd October 18, 2014 at 7:52 PM #

        They use that technique a few times in 22 jump street for comic relief and it works wonderfully. One character throws a bomb and we expect the boob… then nothing…. the characters shrug and the chase continues. It’s a beautiful film for this one element alone.

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