Chekhov's Gun - How to Use it In Your Writing

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Though frequently misidentified as a plot device, Chekhov's gun is actually a tool for writers to learn how to use detail in effective plot development.


What Exactly Is Chekhov's Gun?

Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle that implies that details within a story or play contribute to the overall narrative. This encourages writers not to make false promises in their narrative by including impromptu details that will not be paid off by the final act, chapter, or conclusion. Chekhov's gun is a highly influential theory of effective writing that requires noticeable details to be incorporated into the plot trajectory, character development, and mood of the work.

Who Was Anton Chekhov, and How Did Chekhov's Gun Come About?

Anton Chekhov was a nineteenth-century short story and playwright who is regarded as one of the greatest authors and playwrights of the modern era. Chekhov, the author of Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, has become a key figure in literary history and criticism.

The term "Chekhov's gun" arose from the various ways Chekhov described writing in letters to his contemporaries. The most famous version says, "If you hung a pistol on the wall in the first act, it should be fired in the second." Otherwise, leave it out."

Other versions use a loaded rifle instead of a pistol, but the underlying point remains the same: if something in your narrative catches the reader's attention, that detail has narrative work to do and must be important to the overall work. Otherwise, the reader will miss its significance, and authors will be writing checks they can't cash, including tantalizing details and possibilities that will ultimately go unfulfilled.

It's worth noting that Chekhov's gun is a literary concept and dramatic principle, not a rhetorical device”not it's something authors use, but rather a guidepost they follow.


What Is the Importance of Chekhov's Gun in Literature?

While the principle of Chekhov's gun is simple, there is some debate about what exactly constitutes Chekhov's gun. Other tools and analytics, such as MacGuffins and red herrings, are related to or follow the rules of Chekhov's gun, but they are not interchangeable.

This ambiguity is best resolved by considering what details in a story a reader is likely to notice.

Some details will be noticed regardless of context, and the author does not need to call attention to them in order for the reader to notice them. A gun or other weapon, a massive diamond ring, and a mysterious briefcase, for example, will always attract attention, whereas others, such as a fedora, will not. Regardless of how much emphasis the author places on them, noticeable details should always pay off in stories.

An ordinary vase will go unnoticed unless the author draws attention to it with extensive commentary and rhetoric. A floral vase on the table is easily overlooked, but if the author draws attention to it repeatedly, Chekhov's gun dictates that this vase had better be significant to the overall story”perhaps it holds the codes to the French nuclear arsenal, in addition to flowers.

However, if an author does not draw attention to such details, they are not required to follow this rule. A traffic jam in Los Angeles is unremarkable, and including it in the story does not imply that it must follow Chekhov's gun and eventually prove significant. However, if the author complains and prattles about traffic, it enters Chekhov's gun territory and must prove significant.


How Does Chekhov's Gun Come Into Play in Writing?

Chekhov's gun can imply that a story is tightly woven, with emphasized details eventually shaping the narrative.

Chekhov and his work provide some of the best examples of Chekhov's gun principle in action. For example, in Act I of his play The Seagull, the main character carries a rifle onto the stage. By the end of the play, he has committed suicide with the riffle. Such a detail”a rifle in the main character's hand, on stage”would appear superfluous if it did not play a role in the plot's progression and would have violated Chekhov's own principle if it had not been the instrument of the character's death.

Chekhov's gun, which is a rule that effective foreshadow follows, can also be used to describe successful literary tools and plot structures, such as foreshadowing. Readers of the Harry Potter series, for example, will recall being lightly peppered with details about a specific set of Vanishing Cabinets, first mentioned in the second book of the series, then again in the fifth book, before becoming central to the plot of the sixth book. Here, foreshadowing follows Chekhov's gun by not leaving emphasized details (such as repeatedly lengthy descriptions of a cabinet) with no narrative significance by the end of the story.

Though not a literary technique, Chekhov's gun can be a useful analytical tool for critics in describing narrative flaws. Saying that a work did not adhere to Chekhov's gun implies that the story was unfocused, preoccupied with minor details that did not contribute to the larger work.


Writing Tips for Using Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's gun can be used for a variety of purposes to indicate a variety of things.

1. Keep in mind that Chekhov's gun is not a literary device. It is a theory of detail economy within plotted narratives. It's not so much something you do as it is something you observe.

2. Consider the details you include to follow it. This means you should consider whether they are whimsy or actively contribute to the overall plot structure.

3. Feel free to break the rules from time to time. Red herrings, or details included to mislead the reader about subsequent plot twists, are intentionally included details that violate Chekhov's gun. It is an effective technique to lead readers to suspect the wrong person for the crime in the mystery by surrounding them with implicating but ultimately circumstantial details.

4. Foreshadow plot twists with details that become necessary to the story once the twist is revealed. If your main character's mother is a serial killer, you could hint at it in the first chapter by having a character comment on her frequent trips out of town and her remote storage locker in the third chapter. That these details will pay off when the twist is revealed is Chekhov's gun in action, the promise that emphasizing otherwise insignificant storage and travel details will eventually prove relevant to the story.

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