Chekhov’s Gun: Keeping Everything Relevant

A little while ago, I wrote a post about Deus Ex Machina and how it can hinder the narrative of a potentially great story. It’s one of those things that will really get people questioning the quality of your work… and once they find an obvious issue with the story (like an unexpected, random entity swooping in to save the day), you’ll realise it’s much easier for them to pick apart the smaller, usually forgivable, plot holes. So how do you solve that? How do you make sure that the story is succinct, exciting and impactful? Well, I’ll definitely be doing a post on general tips in the future, but one of the most important things is Chekhov’s Gun. It is fundamental to a good story, and so it’s best to understand what it means so that you can utilise Chekhov’s advice in your work.

So what is Chekhov talking about? What does a gun have to do with creating a good narrative? What makes this technique so important? Well, I would argue it’s not just a simple trope or plot device to be thrown around in your story. It’s also a general rule of writing aimed for you to create something that resonates with your readers or audience… in the way Chekhov himself described it, anyway. So let’s take a look at what he actually said:

“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.” – Anton Chekhov

What does that mean? Well, Chekhov is warning you to make sure that you make use of every little detail that you draw attention to in your story. It’s about making sure that you don’t make a big deal out of nothing, or fill your writing with things which won’t become useful at some point later in the story. If you’ve focused on the colour of your character’s hair or eyes in the story, make it relevant later on. If you’ve added in a seemingly random description of a particular little locket that no one can open in Book Five of your huge franchise, bring it back later and make it a horcrux.

This particular quote – along with one other that says pretty much the same thing – is the essential basis of the idea of Chekhov’s Gun, and thanks to his choice of words, you can see how the advice can be taken as a trope and as a general writing rule. Don’t worry! I’m going to give you a little information on both ways to use the advice and how they can help with your story. You can’t get away with only thinking about what he says in one way, though. Both readings of this quote are necessary in order to aid you in your creation of an excellent piece of work. When you understand both, you’ll really improve your writing by leaps and bounds… and you won’t look back.

Chekhov's Gun
Artwork by Chaotic Deluge

As a Writing Rule

The playwright basically stresses the importance of writing an economical story that isn’t cluttered with unnecessary descriptions of irrelevant things. It keeps the audience interested, and things remain fairly concise. Any part of your writing that you spend time describing must be used at some point elsewhere in the story. Otherwise, it can leave the audience feeling quite unsatisfied, and it makes whole chunks of it seem pointless and time-wasting. This is particularly important in fantasy stories with elaborate, complicated world-building, as the audience is much more likely to feel bogged down if your story is full of irrelevant details as well as an intricate web of information about the history, religions, politics, languages, and everything else that helps you set up your world.

You draw attention to something when you use too many words or spend a lot of time on it. If it’s irrelevant and unimportant after that, then what was the point of you wasting your audience’s time? Why not write it as an interesting detail in a blog or include it in some fun facts for your die-hard fans, instead? That time you spent obsessing over something which will never be important again could be used to develop an essential character or pad out the plot. Think of this in terms of creating a film: if a camera lingers on a character’s reaction to a piece of news, you want to know that the news is going to make a difference in the plot, even if it’s a small one. Otherwise, why not just cut to a different shot… one that doesn’t stand out as much, so doesn’t draw attention to itself?

If any of you are anime fans like I am, you’ll know the struggle that comes with being on the receiving end of a cluttered story – especially if you watched every single episode of a long shonen anime like Bleach or Naruto. They’re full of so many stupid fillers. The fillers don’t add much to the story at large and are basically stand-alone farces full of nonsense, such as Kagome catching a cold in Inuyasha or the ninja ostrich in Naruto. By the end, your time has been thoroughly wasted, and you find yourself asking “what was the point?” Well, imagine if that anime series was a single book. All of those annoying fillers would be the parts of the plot that you added in just because. They don’t have a point when it comes to the whole narrative of the story, but you really hang onto them simply because you like them.

Chekhov's Gun Naruto Ostrich

When I point out irrelevant parts of a story to the people who enlist my editing services on Episode, a good portion of the authors will fight tooth and nail to keep in their irrelevant little plot details. They’ll tell me that they don’t care that it doesn’t have a point… that it’s just for fun. Well, if that’s your attitude, is it really a good story that you want? It sounds like you’re writing solely for your benefit, not to create something that other people will actually enjoy. In which case, maybe I’m not the best editor for you, because of that kind of thing really bothers me. Good luck. I don’t even know why you read this far if you’re not willing to listen to advice on how to change things. And I really don’t think it’s your fault, actually! I blame it on the prevalence of TV sitcoms and their stupid, pointless plots. Adding in plot seeds which never grow is part of the difference between the excellent Simpsons of the 90s and the mindless mundanity it’s become since. Once upon a time, killing off a character like the original Snowball would have had an effect on the whole story. Snowball II continued to be a character after that episode. Things that happened in single episodes mattered. Now, Principal Skinner’s whole character has been undermined in a single episode, and they go on like nothing happened.

But I digress massively. My point is that acknowledging Chekhov’s Gun as a general story writing rule can create a much more satisfying story for your audience. If you want more information about that, there are much more knowledgeable people than I on the subject of what caused The Simpsons to decline. I recommend this 32-minute video:

That doesn’t mean that every single thing you write has to lead to one conclusion. Chekhov never mentioned that firing his gun had to be the most important plot detail, or that it had to have a huge effect on everything. It’s like I’ve said time and time again (although I don’t know if on here or elsewhere on the Episode forums): make sure that everything you write has a point. It shouldn’t just be there because you like it. If you set up a plot detail and draw attention to it, don’t then leave it hanging. Tie up all loose endings by the end of the story… including the ones that you never realised existed.

As a Plot Device

This is probably the one you’ll be most familiar with… and it refers to a single item, concept, or piece of information (among other things). Although people may have heard of it before, I noticed a lot of people using it wrong when I was doing my research for this post. Let me cover what it isn’t before I focus on what it is and how to use it properly to create an effective impact on your writing.

It’s not a Red Herring

In fact, Red Herrings are probably the exact opposite of Chekhov’s Gun. Their sole purpose is to confuse the reader and trick them into believing something about the plot that isn’t true. It’s there to divert attention from the things that are actually happening. Chekhov’s Gun is about making sure to use all the plot details that you draw attention to in some meaningful way, not about adding in plot details just to throw the audience and trick them into thinking the details are important.

It’s not a MacGuffin

This difference is a lot easier to understand than a Red Herring. MacGuffins are plot points used to drive the story forward. Something which motivates the characters to act and acts as their goal throughout the story. A good example of a MacGuffin would be the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, which drives all the characters to act. Without it, there would be no plot. So, instead of a gun on the wall that has focus drawn to it, a MacGuffin would be a gun that everyone is trying to find or hide in the story. Definitely not Chekhov’s Gun.

It’s not Deus Ex Machina

Quite the opposite, actually. I mean, I’ve already done my post on it, as I said before, but Deus Ex Machina is about including a random object, character, force or idea out of nowhere to fill in the plot holes, help drive the plot forward or save the day. It’s a random curveball thrown at the audience that doesn’t give any warning before it appears. Chekhov’s Gun is more about utilising what you have and making all the things you’ve used count.

It’s not a plot twist

While a lot of plot twists include Chekhov’s Guns – often ones that the audience have forgotten about – not all plot twists do utilise this literary device… and not all Chekhov’s Guns are part of a plot twist. I’m sure you know what this is: it’s a really drastic and unexpected shift in the direction the story is taking. That’s much broader than Chekhov’s Gun, and the two can be used simultaneously, as I’ve already said.

It’s not a Dangler

Danglers are your strings of a wider plot which are left hanging (or “dangling”) to be forgotten about, dropped and never brought up again. Basically, anything that is set up, but not resolved by the end of the story. Unless they’re done on purpose and for a clear reason, I find these ridiculously frustrating. Making sure to fire your gun that was sitting the wall is the way to prevent this kind of atrocity from happening. Avoid it at all costs. Use Chekhov’s trusty gun.

So what is it? Well, Chekhov’s Gun as a plot device is something in the story which has been established and brought up ages before it ends up being used in the plot. It’s often a subtle reference (like describing a gun on the wall in passing) that becomes useful for the story in the long-term. Take my Harry Potter reference, for example:

“a heavy locket that none of them could open; a number of ancient seals; and, in a dusty box, an Order of Merlin, First Class, that had been awarded to Sirius’s grandfather for ‘services to the Ministry’.”  – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

This is interesting. You probably already know that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth book in the series. This happens fairly early on in the plot. Well, that locket doesn’t come up again until a book later, and it isn’t found until the final book in the series. What a subtle reference! That gun was sitting there on the wall for a lot longer than we thought…

In order to get this device right, you need to make sure you know enough about your plot to use your objects in the fullest. Pick out which items, characters and other story details will be useful very late in the story. Ask yourself how you can introduce them way before they’re needed. Can it be discovered in a shop? Will a character trip over it? Does it belong to another character? Voila! You’ve got the beginnings of a gun! Put it in a useful place where your characters will find it and then give the gun just enough attention that the audience remembers it vaguely. Don’t make the gun too obvious! You want your readers to feel smart for taking the hint or remembering when the gun was introduced. Give them enough fuel to create theories: once an audience is aware of the fact that you know how to use Chekhov’s Gun, it will become a fun challenge for them to wonder what you’re going to bring back next. Like in the video game series Kingdom Hearts, people will be wondering if you’re going to bring back a boring old stick and how it will be utilised. It’s fun to theorise like that… and it makes you feel quite smug as an author, too! Then, you need to give them enough time to forget it. Again, you don’t want to make the gun too obvious. It’s not supposed to be an ominous, threatening presence on the wall. It’s just supposed to be there… minding its own business… having just enough presence to give you a little hint that it’s waiting to be used.

When you use it again, your readers should be saying “oh! I completely forgot about that!” Or, if it’s been so long since it was brought up that they’re unlikely to remember, think about reminding your readers of when it came up and how. In The Deathly Hallows, Harry confronts Sirius’s brother’s initials, “R.A.B”, on the door of his room in Grimmauld Place. As readers, our memories transport us back to the fake locket and the fact that the same initials are on the door. Then, Harry remembers the locket that he couldn’t open in his fifth year and… he comes to the conclusion that the horcrux is in the house at the same time as (or just before) we do! J.K. Rowling tackles this gun so seamlessly, it makes us wonder if she had every little detail of the story planned before she wrote about Mr Dursley on the first page of Book One.

From a reader’s perspective, this makes you look like a genius. It shows that you’ve thought of all the little intricate details and makes your story a joy to read for the second or third time: when people realise how soon in the plot you dropped that locket or pistol, it gives them that little thrill. Wow! They noticed it! You were a genius for writing it, and they’re a genius for noticing. Really, it either comes with meticulous planning or with the insane ability to blag yourself through any situation. Well, maybe you are a genius, but you don’t have to be one to master this technique. All you have to do is make sure that you’re on track with your story and you make sure that your gun has been casually mentioned long before it is used. If you fail to mention the gun beforehand, it becomes a Deus Ex Machina… and we all know how frustrating they can be for audiences.

So take some time to think through your story. Ask yourself what the important plot points are that you want to hit, and then have a good idea of how you want to hit them. Turn these into guns and dot them around your work. If you’re like me and you hate to plan every single aspect of your story (for fear of losing interest in it during the write and rewrite), just plan out the guns! Put them into a good planning app or website (like notebook.ai) and make sure you’re always aware of these as you write your story. Don’t include unnecessary fluff that doesn’t affect the story and make sure that your writing has a point… or two… hundred.

Happy writing!

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