Chekhov’s gun is about writing with intention. It means that we shouldn’t be throwing things into our stories that serve no purpose.
It doesn’t mean that we can’t have setting descriptions and what-not. We need those things to help set the mood and orient our readers to the story’s time and place. And sometimes, the only purpose of these things is to help our readers.
Regardless, Chekhov’s gun is a principle that guides writers from a jumbled mess on the page to a cleverly built story that makes sense. And we have a Russian writer to thank for it. According to Now Novel:
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian physician, author, and playwright who lived from 1860 to 1904. Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the great masters of the short story.
The term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ comes from something Chekhov allegedly said in the 1880s: “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”
What is Chekhov’s Gun?
The definition of what Chekhov’s gun is depends on who you talk to, and it’s not the definition that’s causing contention, but whether it’s a rule or a literary device. And it may not seem like an important distinction between the two classifications, but to some, it is.
Please keep that in mind for this definition of Chekhov’s gun:
Chekhov’s gun: is a dramatic principle that suggests that details within a story or play will contribute to the overall narrative.
Let’s get straight to Chekhov’s example to help you unpack this. If you have a gun hanging on the wall in the first chapter of your novel, it better go off by the end of your book.
This definition means that you have to write with intention. You can’t make false promises to your audience (introduce things to your story that go nowhere.)
Think about it; what good is a gun hanging on the wall if it’s there for no reason? You might as well not have it there if it has no meaning.
If you’re thinking about adding something or are self-editing your latest work in progress, ask yourself: what significance does this play in your overall narrative?
Why Does it Matter?
And most of the time, the differences are attributed to what a reader notices. For example, if your story contains a gun, a big diamond ring, or a mysterious suitcase, your reader will note that.
According to Chekhov’s gun, there must be a reason why those things are in your story. But if you have a character walk by wearing a scarf, your reader probably won’t care to know more. So the scarf-wearing individual doesn’t need to show up again later on in your novel.
Another example of this principle in action is when you repeatedly draw attention to an everyday item, like a floral vase. In and of itself, the vase isn’t extraordinary, but because you keep coming back to it, that vase needs to have some special significance later on in your story.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
J. K. Rowling used this spectacularly in her Harry Potter series with the vanishing cabinet. Rowling gives a sprinkling of information on vanishing cabinets in the second book, and they appear again in the fifth book, before becoming a central focus in the sixth book of the series.
All of that information made it easy for us to understand what Draco Malfoy was trying to, and eventually succeeds in doing, in the sixth book of the serious. In this instance, Rowling told us the cabinet was important and promised to reveal all at a later date.
Our second example revolves around the significance of mahjong and game probability in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. We start with Rachel teaching a class on game probability, And she made a point of saying, “you must play to win” in any chance game. You can’t play with the intent of not losing because you will never win.
And that’s not mentioned again until the final moments when Rachel and Eleanor sit down to play a game of mahjong. Again, we see Chekhov’s gun in action here.
We know mahjong is significant to the plot, and Kwan delivers on this by the end of his novel. (You can find a full explanation of why the final mahjong scene is so important not just to the plot but also culturally from this Vox article.)
How to Use Chekhov’s Gun
Chekhov’s gun can appear in many different forms throughout your narrative, and it isn’t limited to physical objects either. Thankfully, TV Tropes has made a list of the different types of guns you can use in your story.
So how can you apply Chekov’s gun to your own writing? You know, in a practical way.
Get rid of false“guns” in your own writing.
If you plot before starting to write, start searching for irrelevant guns in the outlining phase. If you make up your story as you go along, you must eliminate these over-signified elements when you revise.
But this doesn’t apply to every red herring in your story. Sometimes they’re good things to have because you do need to misdirect readers from time to time. It’s when those red herrings don’t get wrapped up neatly for your reader that you’ll need to cut them.
Chekhov’s gun also refers to physical items.
For example, scenes and characters can function as “guns” because all the elements of a story must work together to move the story forward in significant ways. If they do not, you must eliminate them, even if they’re your favorite scene, character, etc.
Focus on something important.
It can be a character, an object, a setting. It’s something that will be important at a later date in your story. For example, in my short story Tricks, I focus on one trick or treater specifically because he becomes a catalyst for something else later on in the story.
Do something unexpected.
Imagine you’re reading a story, and this happens:
Two people are having a heated debate at a coffee shop when a man with a cane, pink pinstripe suit, bowler hat, and jaunty walk strolls by, bringing the argument to a halt as they stare at his unusual attire.
This man in the hat has served a plot-related purpose: ending the argument. However, his role in the story can’t end there. If you’re going to introduce an out-of-the-ordinary element suddenly, you need to follow through with an explanation. Why is the man dressed this way? Why is he at the coffee shop? Was it necessary for this man specifically to end the other characters’ argument?
Introducing elements in an unusual context is a great way to place significance on something — but if you don’t have a purposeful reason for doing so, you’re a rule-breaker.
Feel free to break the rule (sometimes).
Red herrings, or details included to throw the reader off subsequent plot twists, are by design details that violate Chekhov’s gun. But you need this in a mystery novel to keep things interesting. So sometimes it’s within your best interest to throw your readers off the beaten path, but make sure you tie up those misleading clues.
Chekhov’s gun is a guiding principle that should be tacked to a writer’s wall somewhere. It keeps us honest as we write and edit by reminding us to deliver on our promises to readers: to wrap up everything neatly at the end of the book.
It’s a reminder that we need to write with intention.
Please ensure that you are mostly following this literary device or rule (depending on how you view it); your readers will thank you for it. But also feel free to throw them a few curve balls to keep them guessing.
Have you noticed Chekhov’s gun in your writing? Do you think it’s a rule or a literary device? Please let me know in the comments below! I love hearing from you guys.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.