What is “Chekhov’s Gun” and Why Does it Matter?

Have you heard the term “Chekhov’s gun” before, when talking about a scene from a story? Maybe it was in the context of a negative review of a movie or show you just watched, or maybe someone critiquing your work suggested there’s a case of “Chekhov’s gun” that you should address. So what is it, exactly, and how can you spot it from now on?

Who is Chekhov?

Anton Chekhov was a Russia playwright who lived in the late 1800s and died in 1904. He is often credited as being one of the greatest masters of the modern short story, with works such as the plays Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, all works that survive well to this day in theater.

He was well respected in his time, and his theories about storytelling are often referenced in the literary world as examples of how to tell a good story without using complex plots or easy solutions to all of the problems the characters face. One of the greatest contributions to the unofficial rulebook of literature that he made was a term that would be later known as “Chekhov’s gun.”

What is Chekhov’s Gun?

Chekhov often gave critiques of the work of his contemporaries, asserting his ideas of good storytelling upon them. The most famous advice that he gave, in several of the letters he wrote, was to “remove everything that has no relevance to the story.” He suggested that by simply placing something in the story as significant as a loaded gun, the writer is making a promise to the expectations of the audience, whether they are cognizant of it or not.

Chekhov stated clearly in one of his letters that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This fundamental principle can be applied not only to stage plays, but all forms of story telling. Most writers will likely agree that the shorter the form of the writing, the more important it is to understand how to use Chekhov’s gun.

Examples of Chekhov’s Gun

Now that you understand what Chekhov’s gun is on principle, can you think of any other applications of the concept in today’s storytelling?

Signs (2002)
In the movie Signs (2002), we see many elements that exemplify good use of the concept that Chekhov pushed. Along with other less obvious elements, we see a baseball bat and several glasses of water in the house in the beginning of the movie. Later in the movie, both become key to the resolution. They were put there intentionally and were used later in the story.

Zootopia (2016)
In the film, we see Judy Hopps carry a can of Fox Repellent with her. She received the can from her parents, and it is later used as a device to show the fox Nick Wilde that Judy is in fact prejudiced against foxes, even though she doesn’t actually use it on him.

Game of Thrones (Season 4, 2014)
During the second episode of the 4th season of Game of Thrones, we see a chalice handed to King Joffrey that would ultimately be used to poison him. During the course of the episode, we see the cup exchange hands several times before the fateful moment, so we do not know who poisoned him, but we know that the cup was used to do it.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to take the advice of Anton Chekhov. Some writers have famously gone against his teachings, such as Ernest Hemingway, who loved to include superfluous details in his writing to set the scene rather than to actually use it as part of the plot. He did admit later that readers tend to look for meaning in the smallest things he would include, however, so keep that in mind as you write.

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