So, the other day, I found Chekhov’s Gun.
For those without a literary education or access to Google, Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device named for the person who first expressed its existence: Anton Chekhov, Russian doctor and author.* He stated it several different ways, but I prefer this one:
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
– Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
I could say that, with some of the characters I write, there is never a gun they aren’t thinking of firing, but I digress.
This Gun** was found in the story notes for the novel I’m rewriting. I’d introduced it early on, and then never done anything with it. Which is a shame, because it has the potential to cause a fuckload of trouble if used. And solve a few problems if used correctly, but considering the characters I’m dealing with, they’ll find some way to cause trouble.
This is not foreshadowing, or not just foreshadowing. Chekhov’s Gun is about not including things which have no significance to the story. If it has no meaning or purpose, it has no place on the stage. Or in the novel.
The idea is that any item which is introduced, passively or otherwise, should serve a purpose. This can help prevent Pulling It Out Of Your Ass Syndrome, where the reader feels cheated because problems are solved by conveniently placed items that just happen to be within reach. If you introduce the item early, preferably as something minor or serving another purpose entirely, then the reader knows it’s there and it seems far more fucking likely that the hero would reach for it in a time of crisis.
So, what am I going to do now that I’ve found this story’s Gun?
Fire it, of course.
*Not Ensign Chekhov. Then it would be ‘Chekhov’s Nuclear Wessels”.
**Obviously the Gun doesn’t have to be a literal gun. It can be anything: a weapon, a book, a piece of jewelry, a spell, a photograph, a monkey-shaped vibrator…anything.
2 thoughts on “Bang Bang: Firing Chekhov’s Gun”
I agree that you shouldn’t pull new story elements out of your butt when your character is in crisis, but there are times when you’ll need irrelevant aspects to your story – like when you’re writing a mystery. Too often mystery authors follow the Chekov’s gun rule, only include things that will be important later, and make their stories are incredibly easy to figure out.
It’s a fine line to walk, I agree. Comes with practice, I imagine.