I recently presented a workshop that discussed Chekhov’s gun, a writing metaphor coined by 19th Century Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s gun can be a useful tool for thinking about foreshadowing and dramatic tension. It comes in many forms that can be used in different contexts, and can also be placed into a group of similar elements that connect one scene or idea with another.
The writing advice you’ve most likely heard from Chekhov can be paraphrased as:
“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.”
To explore how Chekhov’s gun works, let’s imagine a stage that’s set with a rifle on the wall. This setting is the always-visible background to whatever action we see in the foreground.
No matter what the characters do or say in the foreground, this literal gun remains in the background, presenting the possibility that there will be a shooting. The audience doesn’t necessarily know who will use the gun. They may have suspicions, and they may be right, but they may also be surprised. They also don’t know for sure who will be the intended target, or what the outcome will be, but an expectation has been established and the general shape of the upcoming conflict has been defined. We’re interested. We’re drawn in. We’re invested. Without doing anything, the gun hasn’t even done anything…yet!
The physical object on the wall is a classic Chekhov’s gun. But from the scene, we may also learn something about the society in which the story is set. For example, if there are two powerful families involved in a long-established feud, that feud is likely also a kind of Chekhov’s gun. It’s an element that creates a tension in the story and an expectation that that tension should eventually be resolved.
We might also learn something about the characters. For example, one character might have a notorious temper, and that temper is also a Chekhov’s gun that we expect to go off later in the story. In some instances, the relationship between two characters can be a Chekhov’s gun. In some instances, the weather can be a Chekhov’s gun.
A story may have multiple elements that each set up a narrative payoff in a future scene. This Chekhov’s arsenal of story elements may all go off at the same time, or one after another in a series.
In The Maze Runner by James Dashner, a boy named Thomas arrives in the middle of a maze with shifting walls, populated by monsters and insectoid surveillance drones. Thomas and the other boys with him are all suffering from the same kind of oddly selective amnesia. Soon after, a girl arrives with a cryptic note from the creators of the maze. Dashner’s first act assembles a vast collection of Chekhov’s guns: the maze, the monsters, the drones, the amnesia, the girl, the note, the sickness brought on when the boys are touched by the monsters, the cure to the sickness, the visions that accompany the cure, and on and on. There are so many Chekhov’s guns in play that it creates a puzzle in the reader’s mind as to how all of these various elements relate to each other, and how they will lead to a resolution of the plot’s central mystery.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.”
If Chekhov had stopped his advice after just this sentence, we’d already have some very useful advice. Paring down the character set, sharpening the narrative structure, removing unnecessary scenes, and including only descriptions that matter can improve a manuscript immensely.
People talk about Chekhov’s gun, but they tend to ignore the importance of Chekhov’s mantelpiece, and how it has to be swept clean before readers can notice the object hanging on the wall above it. The more important it is for Chekhov’s gun to be noticed, the more important it becomes to clean Chekhov’s mantelpiece.
This isn’t to say that Chekhov advocated sparse minimalism, or that modern authors and playwrights have adopted a minimalist approach in response. Modern theater has some incredibly elaborate stage settings, like the lush opulence of Phantom of the Opera or the detail-packed junkyard of Cats. But even within these, we can find objects of importance that successfully draw a viewer’s attention. In Phantom, the most opulent object in the opera house is a crystal chandelier that crashes to the floor to mark an important moment of transition, while also foreshadowing the theme of light that returns in the candles of the crypt. In Cats, the biggest hunk of trash in the heap is an old tire that serves as a podium for each spotlit character in turn, and then serves as a Victorian-era spaceship in the finale.
Theater and film provide visual examples of Chekhov’s gun, and some writing is similarly visual. In a picture book, story elements may be positioned to put tension and expectation into a page-turn. In a graphic novel, a visual element can be placed in one frame and pop up again later on.
But because text is a non-visual medium, objects in a middle grade or YA novel only exist on a page while they are actively being described. Placing the story element n the back of the reader’s mind is our equivalent of mounting it on a wall behind the action. For these stories, Chekhov’s mantelpiece is inside the reader’s head, and the author’s challenge is to carefully transmit the story elements into the reader’s mind, where they can build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for future events.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [or Philosopher’s] Stone by J.K. Rowling, the physical description of eleven-year-old Harry includes quick details about his slim stature, his eyes, and his glasses, followed by an extended focus on his scar. If the rest of Harry’s description were any more detailed, we might miss the significance of the scar as a Chekhov’s gun, and the hinted importance that it will have to the rest of the story.
“If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act.”
This is something to keep in mind while writing. When working on the first part of a book, an author needs to anticipate all the guns that will be going off later in the book, and start setting them in place. When working on the later parts of a book, an author needs to bring each of those story elements from background to foreground. This process is going to be different for authors who plot in advance and those who write by the seat of their pants, the so-called plotters and pantsers (although the metaphor I’ve come to prefer involves architects and gardeners instead).
For plotters, an initial outline would be incomplete if it didn’t include all necessary setup and payoff for each Chekhov’s gun in a story. For pantsers, elements that are planned to work as Chekhov’s guns may fail to go off when a plot meanders in an unexpected direction, or an element may suddenly be needed that hasn’t been adequately established before. Either style of writer benefits from the revision process.
Some formats are also more challenging than others. Part of your revision process should be dedicated to making sure that each gun in Chekhov’s arsenal is necessary and that each one is used in a way that creates a satisfying resolution.
The Martian by Andy Weir is told mostly told through the log entries of an astronaut who gets left behind on a mission to Mars. The character doesn’t know what will happen next, which makes it unrealistic for him to include intentional foreshadowing in his writing. He is also much more knowledgeable than the reader about all the things that could go wrong with a space mission, which makes it difficult for the author to drop hints that a reader would pick up on that the character would not. This requires some scenes to be set on Earth, where a Chekhov’s gun can be established that will go off on an entirely different planet. In one sequence, the Martian astronaut’s log entries are interspersed with a description of how a square of fabric was manufactured by one of NASA’s contractors. We know this fabric will be important in a way that the astronaut doesn’t expect, but we don’t yet know how.
“If the rifle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
In The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, much attention is paid to a certain ring in the possession of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Even though Bilbo is an especially long-lived and well-off Hobbit, the ring is singled out as the one item he should leave behind–on a mantelpiece, of all places, as Tolkien was surely aware of Chekhov’s advice. Bilbo even mentions how amazing he finds it that Gandalf, a wizard, is interested in an item Bilbo found in a cave rather than the more impressive-looking magical sword and Elf-crafted armor that Bilbo collected on that same adventure. After such a build-up, and given the title of the book itself, the ring needs to be important to the plot. If it’s not, the reader might feel cheated.
But not everything in the story can be a Chekhov’s gun. How can you tell what is and what isn’t? Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s a subtle bonus for readers who are paying attention, or is meant to be obvious in retrospect or upon a second reading.
Or maybe it’s one of those things that look like Chekhov’s gun but are actually something else…
Next time: The Red Herring, the Deus ex Machina, the McGuffin, the Callback, and the Easter Egg.