What is Chekhov’s gun?

POSTED ON May 10, 2023

Hannah Lee Kidder

Written by Hannah Lee Kidder

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Many people consider Chekhov’s gun to be a literary element or plot device, when it’s not quite that. Chekhov’s gun is more of a tool for thought. It’s a principle writers can employ to systematically consider the effect of story details on a plot.

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What is Chekhov’s gun?

Chekhov’s gun (or Chekhov’s rifle) is the narrative convention coined by Anton Chekhov that compels for every element in a story to be necessary. Essentially, if a gun is featured in a story, there must be a reason for it, meaning it must be fired later.

According to Chekhov’s principle, every element in a story should have some use or payoff in order to earn inclusion. He thought it was wrong to make a promise you don’t keep, and including something significant in a story is a promise you make to your readers. If it doesn’t pay off, you’ve theoretically broken that promise.

There are several variations of this advice from Chekhov, but here’s one quote to sum it up: “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.”

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What is NOT Chekhov’s gun?

There’s a bit of murkiness around what actually constitutes the “gun” in a story.

These are two situations where Chekhov’s gun applies:

1. If a detail that seems irrelevant at first mention is repeatedly brought up again, it is likely a gun. When a writer calls attention to an object or concept, even if it is a common, everyday thing, the readers will expect that object or concept to pay off in some way by the end of the story.

2. If a detail is so big and obvious (like a literal gun), it will not escape notice, that is likely a gun. That means (if following Chekhov’s idea), that detail should pay off or be important to the story in some way.

But if a detail is both irrelevant at first glance and the author doesn’t emphasize its existence or bring it up again, it is not a gun.

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How to use Chekhov’s gun

If you want to employ Chekhov’s gun in your own writing, here are a few guidelines you might consider.

1. Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.

If you’re trying to follow Chekhov’s guide to the letter, chop everything in your story that has nothing to do with the story. If it isn’t directly affecting the characters or plot, snip it.

This gets murkier when it comes to other story elements like themes, atmosphere, and metaphor.

What counts as the “story”? If themes are considered part of the story, then some elements may seem irrelevant, but they work to build an atmosphere, theme, or moral. This is where the principle gets subjective.

2. Use it to foreshadow events.

Chekhov’s gun lends itself well to foreshadowing. If something is introduced and pays off later, reflecting on the story (or re-reading it) reveals the inevitability of the ending. This kind of obvious planning makes writers look competent and a story seem intentional and developed.

3. Break the rule!

If everyone followed the literal convention of Chekhov’s gun, red herrings wouldn’t exist. Mysteries would hold no intrigue, because it would be so easy to piece together the clues and guess the ending.

Sometimes an object exists just to throw the reader off the trail, especially in mystery stories.

Chekhov’s gun is one of those rules to be aware of, but also know how to break when it serves your story.

4. It doesn’t have to be an object.

While the gun metaphor is referencing a physical object, the idea is also applied to non-object things, like character traits.

If you reveal a character’s fear of heights early in a story, then the climax involves their fear of heights, that character trait could be considered a gun.

So if you emphasize a character’s trait through the story, or it’s such a strange trait that it sticks out and readers will remember it by the end of the book, it makes sense that it is relevant to the plot. If it doesn’t come up again later, it might feel like a letdown.

Mistakes to avoid when using Chekhov’s gun

Like with any writing rule or standard, there are exceptions. Here are some mistakes to avoid.

1. Taking it too literally

If you apply Chekhov’s gun to every single word of your story, you’re going too far. For example, when describing a setting, you’ll likely mention very many things that will not return in a significant way. That’s perfectly fine! “Irrelevant” details that aren’t harped upon work together to build a setting and atmosphere.

If a detail or element is particularly shocking, attention-grabbing, or strange, it should likely be relevant to the story.

If a detail or element is unremarkable, but the writer returns to it several times, spends a great deal of page space describing it, or has a character significantly interact with it, it should likely be relevant to the story.

But if your details are building a picture, and nothing sticks out as particularly strange or notable, that’s fine. Scraping a story of literally anything insignificant to the plot will leave it hollow, boring, and unrealistic..

2. Ignoring it entirely

On the other hand, if you completely dismiss Chekhov’s principle, you might end up deceiving your audience in a negative way. They could feel lied to, or your story will seem sloppily constructed and unthoughtful.

3. Not setting it up properly

If you forget to introduce the gun before it goes off, the foreshadowing doesn’t exist. The gun came out of nowhere, and your audience might be left confused and wondering where the heck that gun came from.

Just like loading a gun and not firing it can leave an audience disappointed, firing the gun without loading it can disappoint them too.

Famous examples of Chekhov’s gun in literature

To illustrate this principle, let’s look at a few examples of Chekhov’s Gun employed in famous pieces of literature.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Gun introduced: Lydia is a loud, silly, flirty girl who is always edging trouble

Gun loaded: Lydia goes on a trip essentially unsupervised, while Lizzie begs her father not to let her go because it’s dangerous

Gun fired: Lydia foolishly gets involved with Mr. Wickham, which traps her in a scandalous marriage and throws the rest of her family under scrutiny and judgment, nearly wrecking all of her sisters’ futures in the process

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Gun introduced: Katniss forages for plants and proves her awareness of poisonous ones

Gun loaded: In the games, she slaps poisonous berries out of Peeta’s hand before he eats them

Gun fired: Katniss pretends to eat the berries to kill herself so the Capitol will let them both live

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Daniel Handler

Gun introduced: Violet is right-handed

Gun loaded: Several times in the book, we are reminded she’s right-handed

Gun fired: At the end, she foils Count Olaf’s plans by signing the marriage certificate with her left hand, making the certificate illegitimate 

And in screenwriting, 

The Quick and the Dead

Gun introduced: The sheriff’s badge thrown to the ground after he’s shot

Gun loaded: The doctor gives Ellen the sheriff’s badge before her fight

Gun fired: Cort and Ellen fake her death by hiding the sheriff’s badge in her shirt when he shoots her, so the bullet is blocked (sounds legit)

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Arguments against Chekhov’s gun

Not every writer or reader agrees with Chekhov’s principle. Ernest Hemingway once poked fun at this sentiment by writing Fifty Grand, a short story where he introduced two characters that are never mentioned again.

Hemingway proposed that readers naturally want to assign some value to every bit of a story, meaning they will seek their own symbolism or significance in whatever a writer chooses to include..

If you feel Hemingway is a bit of a hack (same, girlie), here’s another argument: Andrea Phillips commented that assigning a “role” to every aspect of a story makes it predictable and “colorless”.

Donald Rayfield also pointed out that Chekhov neglects his own advice in his play, The Cherry Orchard, where not one but TWO unloaded firearms are never fired. But that element plays into the piece’s theme of incomplete action, so it is likely intentionally done.

It’s often the case that people who argue with guidelines in any creative field are overlooking the fact that it is just that: a guideline. No one will break your door down and confiscate your laptop if you’ve decided to take an unbeaten path on your way to a story—choose to take the advice, or discard it!

You’d be hard-pressed to find two artists who agree on every “rule” and convention of form—each decides for themselves, which is what makes art worthwhile. How boring it would be if every creator followed the same template!

Do you follow Chekhov’s rule in your own writing, or have you found exceptions for it?

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