In my last article, I blogged about some notable writing advice from 19th Century Russian author and playwright, Anton Chekhov:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act. If the riffle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
In this installment, we’ll be expanding our arsenal to include a variety of other narrative tools that look like Chekhov’s Gun but operate in different ways and in different contexts.
Chekhov’s Gun is a story element introduced to build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for events that happen later in the story.
As a reminder, Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t have to be a physical object, as in Chekhov’s example. It can also be a character trait, an aspect of culture, a setting, a relationship, or any other story element that’s introduced early in a story to create a narrative tension that pays off later in the story.
A Red Herring is a story element that offers an intentionally misleading promise to build anticipation, sends narrative tension in an intentionally misleading direction, or offers an intentionally misleading explanation for events that happen later in the story.
English journalist William Cobbett, in the early 19th Century, wrote about a boy who used a red herring to mislead the hounds who were following his trail. The Red Herring soon became a literary metaphor for intentional misdirection.
The Red Herring looks like a Chekhov’s Gun, and therefore evokes a reader’s expectation that it will resolve like a Chekhov’s Gun in a later part of the story–except that it instead leads elsewhere or fails to resolve at all, providing a satisfying misdirection for the author’s actual intent. Often, characters are “fooled” into following the Red Herring into a narrative cul-de-sac, bringing the reader along for the ride. The Red Herring is famously employed in mystery novels, but can be used anywhere to great effect.
Think of the Red Herring as a magic trick. We enjoy being fooled by a magician’s slight of hand. We enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how the magician plans to fool us. We even enjoy knowing exactly how the trick works, while appreciating the skill it takes to pull off.
Deus ex Machina
A Deus ex Machina is a story element that resolves narrative tension or offers an explanation for story events without being previously introduced.
In Ancient Greek theatrical tradition, an otherwise unresolvable plot could be neatly wrapped up by one of the gods, represented by a lifesized statue that would be lowered onto the stage by a mechanism from above.
The Deus ex Machina resolves narrative tension, much like a Chekhov’s Gun, but appears where and when it is needed without any advance warning. This device has fallen into disfavor, with many readers finding it to be an unsatisfying “cheat” on the author’s part.
All is not lost if you find a Deus ex Machina is your story. Planting a hint and suggestion earlier in the story can easily convert this element into a proper Chekhov’s Gun.
A McGuffin is a story element introduced to advance the plot, but which could be easily replaced by another generic item with little change to the story. Not to be confused with the fast-food sandwich that could be easily replaced by an actual breakfast.
At a 1939 lecture at Columbia University, English film director Alfred Hitchcock described a term used by his studio for an object that only exists to advance the plot. It’s the necklace in a crime story, which exists only to give a thief has something to steal, or the papers in a spy story, which exist only to give the two sides have something to fight over.
The difference between the McGuffin and a Chekhov’s Gun is that the Chekhov’s Gun has some inherent quality that creates narrative tension. In the classic example, Chekhov’s Gun is a weapon, creating a tension as to whether a shooting will occur. If the gun is used gets stolen and must be recovered by the protagonist, it has become a McGuffin.
McGuffins are necessary to drive a plot forward, but just because they can be switched out for other objects doesn’t mean they have to be entirely generic. The McGuffin can be magical, powerful, and memorable. Entire stories can revolve around them, and are often named after them, such as The Maltese Falcon or Raiders of the Lost Ark. While any old book or thumb drive can carry a cry for help from the captured princess to a retired general by way of a humble farmboy, we remember R2D2–so yes, characters can serve as McGuffins as well.
A Callback is a story element from an early scene that reappears unexpectedly, without tension or anticipation, to link two scenes together, often used in humor or as a thematic symbol.
The Callback is distinguished from a Chekhov’s Gun because its first appearance doesn’t create anticipation that we’ll ever see it again. It’s intentionally planted by an author, like Chekhov’s Gun, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself.
The power in the Callback is that we recognize it, and are surprised by it because we weren’t necessarily expecting to see it pop up again in another context. In humor, the Callback can be a joke that gets a larger and larger laugh with each unexpected repetition or variant. But it can also be a message of inspiration that a mentor character plants early, which pays off when it’s remembered by a character in need.
The Easter Egg
Easter Eggs are story elements that allude to people or events in the real world, or in other stories, and are included as gifts for an attentive reader to find.
Video game developer Steve Wright used the term “Easter Egg” in referring to secret elements planted in a game for players. In the Atari 2600 game Adventure, a signature screen could be accessed by navigating the maze in a certain way.
Unlike a Chekhov’s Gun, the Easter Egg doesn’t impact the plot and may go unremarked upon by the characters, but exists for a diligent reader to discover and enjoy.
As useful as Chekhov’s Gun can be as a narrative tool, it’s important to distinguish it from similar narrative tools. And, having multiple narrative tools available, a writer can move a plot forward, manage reader expectation, create tension, provide humor and inspiration, or leave clever connections for the most diligent readers to find.