The best stories deal with human emotions and say something about the world in which the characters live. But in order to craft a successful story, a writer must look beyond beautiful descriptions and create a story that is engaging to the readers.
All the moving parts of the story must fit together like pieces to a puzzle. Chekhov’s gun refers to the concept that everything in a story must serve a purpose. If it is not essential to the story, it should not be included.
Creating tension and conflict is an essential component of storytelling. This is what keeps readers guessing and on the edge of their seats. If Chekhov’s gun principle is applied to a three-act story structure, the gun hanging on the wall in Act I must go off in Act III.
The History of Chekhov’s Gun
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), a Russian playwright and short story writer, is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time. He wrote hundreds of short stories and dozens of plays and novellas. The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard are just two examples of Chekhov’s masterful storytelling. His writing incorporated humor and human emotion, often depicting sympathetic characters and themes of hope and hardship.
The principle of Chekhov’s gun originated from one of Chekhov’s letters in which he wrote:
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
This concept occurs in Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, where a rifle is introduced in Act I to kill a seagull. In Act IV, the character kills himself with the same rifle.
Whether you are writing a short story or a novel, it is critical that everything has its place and serves a purpose. Every detail in a story contributes to the whole narrative. Using Chekhov’s gun in your writing will force you to pay attention every detail, big or small.
As writers, we make promises to the readers. If you are writing a romance novel, there are certain formulaic elements that readers expect. A romance story, for example, should have a likeable protagonist who goes through hardship, but there is a happily ever after by the end of the novel. If you don’t deliver on those promises, the readers will feel cheated.
The principle of Chekhov’s gun is, essentially, a promise to the reader. When you draw attention to an object or event in your story, your readers will expect it has significance and meaning.
In simple terms, the plot of a story is an arrangement of events. The order of what happens in the story—whether chronological or nonlinear—all leads to the same place: the dramatic climax where all the pieces of the puzzle come together.
Let’s look at the following scene:
Tommy felt a shiver run down his spine as he walked toward his car in the empty parking lot. It was dark and beginning to rain. He pulled up the collar of his jacket and quickened his pace.
The lone streetlamp flickered in the distance. The night was silent except for the sound of his footsteps pounding the pavement. When he reached his car, he fumbled with his keys, opened the door, and slid inside.
Suddenly, headlights shone in his face, blinding him for a moment. There was another car in the parking lot. But how could that be? His hands shook as he turned the key in the ignition. Then the car drove past him and sped away. Tommy noticed the car was red, but he couldn’t make out the license plate because of the rain.
In this scene, Tommy realizes that someone has been following him in a red car. This detail promises readers that the car is significant in some way and will come back later in the story. If Tommy doesn’t figure out who was driving the car, this scene will have made a false promise.
How to Use Chekhov’s Gun
Chekhov’s gun does not have to be a firearm. It can be any object or event as long as it is relevant to the overall plot of the story. Chekhov’s gun can either be a loud explosion or a soft bang, but there needs to be a payoff at the end. If there isn’t a payoff or relevance, your readers will feel misled.
Here are five tips on how to effectively use Chekhov’s gun in your writing.
Tip #1: Set an Intention
Not everything in your story needs to draw attention to itself or have a deeper meaning. If you describe a character’s bedroom in great detail, that doesn’t mean that every object in the room has to play a larger role in the story.
There is a difference between using description and using intention.
It is easy for writers to get bogged down with details, descriptions, characters, and storylines. In many first drafts, we may not even know why we’ve added in a detail about a character or in a scene. But don’t confuse writing description for a Chekhov’s gun.
For example, if you were writing a mystery crime novel:
Description: Your character wears a winter hat in the summer because it is his own unique fashion statement.
Intention: Your character wears a winter hat in the summer, but it’s later revealed that the hat belonged to his dead roommate.
Tip #2: Set It Up
You need to “set up the gun” for it to go off. As mentioned, a Chekhov’s gun can be anything—an object, an event, a subplot, or a character—that creates an impact later in the story.
In the previous example, the character wears a winter hat that represents more than just an article of clothing.
Tip #3: Set It Early
The placement of a Chekhov’s gun in your story is critical for creating the biggest impact.
Introduce your Chekhov’s gun early in the story and draw attention to it throughout. However, be mindful of how early it appears in the story. If you introduce a Chekhov’s gun in chapter 1 and don’t reveal it until chapter 50, readers may not remember its significance or have forgotten about it.
On the other hand, if you introduce a Chekhov’s gun too late in the story, the explosion may be too small. If a Chekhov’s gun appears in chapter 20 and it goes off in chapter 21, there hasn’t been enough time to build tension and intrigue. Not only will your readers feel let down, but your efforts to create drama, conflict, mystery, and tension will also fall flat.
Tip #4: Set It Off
It goes without saying that the gun must be fired. Whether you draw attention to your Chekhov’s gun once or several times throughout your book, it must be revealed at the end of the story.
You don’t want to leave your reader hanging. No one wants to get to the end of a book and wonder, “What happened to that letter the character found in chapter 5?” Every Chekhov’s gun is essential to the plot of the story. If it serves no purpose, leave it out.
Tip #5: Set a Limit
If you use a lot of Chekhov’s guns, they all need to play a crucial role in the story. You don’t want to go overboard for the sake of creating foreshadowing and tension. Remember, everything in your story must relate to something else.
If you find that you are using too many Chekhov’s guns, which can lead to forcing plot points and manufacturing tension, set a limit on how many you want to use. Only use them in pivotal points in the story for the most impact.
It’s important to distinguish between Chekhov’s gun and a red herring.
A red herring is a literary device that distracts from the plot to purposely mislead readers. Red herrings are most commonly used in mystery and crime stories to throw the characters off the trail and to keep readers guessing.
With Chekhov’s gun, the object or event is significant to the overall narrative. In contrast, a red herring can be a significant object, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to circle back and explain a red herring like you would for a Chekhov’s gun.
Both techniques can help enhance your story. Be mindful of which one you are using in your writing.
Put It into Practice
Using the principle of Chekhov’s gun will allow you to create twists and turns to keep your readers engaged and wanting to turn the page. But don’t get bogged down in the weeds. If you try to create meaning behind every detail, it will set you off course and convolute your story and characters.
“Knowledge is of no value unless you put in into practice,” Chekhov once said. If you aren’t familiar with Chekhov’s work, there’s no time like the present. We can learn so much from other writers.