Chekhov's Gun: What to Do if a Gun Is Shown in the First Act
Now that we have your attention with the use of the word "gun," we should probably tell you that we're referring to a writing concept and not an actual gun!
Chekhov's gun can be used by both junior writers and veterans. But enough with all the suspense, let's jump into the concept's actual meaning!
What Is Chekhov's Gun?
Has anyone ever told you that you need to look at the small pieces that make up the big picture? Well, Chekhov's gun is exactly that! It's a description of all the little elements of a story and how they combine to contribute to the overall plot of your novel.
The History of Anton Chekhov
Established by Russian playwright and physician, Anton Chekhov, the Chekhov's gun concept asserts that you need to have a reason for each item that you describe in your story.
In essence, there always needs to be narrative significance. To create this degree of significance, he uses the analogy of a rifle hanging on the wall. How Chekhov describes this rifle should be adapted toward any character development present in your novel.
If Not in the First Chapter, It Must Happen in the Second or Third Chapter
What he says is that if you introduce the rifle hanging on the wall in your first chapter, you need that rifle to either shoot, or do something else of significance, in the second or third chapter. You can't just leave the gun hanging on the wall!
Basically, Chekhov's gun needs to be shot at some point when introduced! This analogy and explanation was coined by Chekhov as the "Chekhov's Gun Principle." After all, readers want action. What better way to have this action than by anticipating a specific sequence of events?
He even goes further to say that if your gun hasn't been shot in the third chapter, it absolutely must hold some form of significance in the fourth. The worst thing you can do is provide the reader with false promises!
Which of the Following Is True of Chekhov's Style?
What Chekhov was aiming for was creating a novel that was as cohesive as it was specific. He wanted Chekhov's gun to be used as a plot device that acts as a loaded rifle which has fine details that are all brought together coherently.
Think About Your Plot Device
But what is a plot device? In essence, it is using the narrative elements in such a way that you draw attention to the significance the main character carries throughout a story. Ultimately, it is used to propel your story to the next level!
Chekhov's gun encourages you to show that objects have a specific and inherent significance. As soon as you envision a ship, you need to think of the shipwreck. It is such details that bring short stories and novels to life!
How to Use Chekhov's Gun
To use Chekhov's gun, you need to describe objects in such a way that a form of significance is already implied. A story that uses this well is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Why does Harry have a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead?
We know that at some point the significance of that scar is going to be explained to us. That is what we mean by implied significance: Knowing that an explanation is coming, either in the next chapter or a few chapters into the story.
But let's think quickly about plot development. How can we use Chekhov's gun in this regard? Well, imagine a woman getting caught in the middle of a zoo. You'd expect an explanation, right? Why would the writer feel the need to tell us that a woman is at the zoo?
This is how Chekhov's gun works to introduce seemingly ordinary people or objects into an unusual and seemingly unpredictable context.
Ultimately, Chekhov's gun adds meat to the bones of any story. Many writers use this to keep the reader hooked on how the story progresses.
Chekhov's Gun: The Presence of Intentional Red Herrings
Have you ever read a story, thinking that you knew what the main character was doing and how the overall story would end? But before you know it, your favorite character chooses to commit suicide using the same rifle that killed their sibling.
This is the concept of the "red herring." It is a writing principle governed by Chekhov's gun. What it does is introduce or intentionally skip over certain objects to mislead the reader's interpretation of how the last act will end.
Before you know it, the pistol hanging on the wall was not a false gun, but rather one that has caused a plot twist! Effective writing doesn't need to immediately make sense. It just needs to draw attention in such a way that inconsequential details are either removed or explained.
Some Advice on Chekhov's Gun
Chekhov's gun is more than just a literary device. It enables plot development, providing a reasonable explanation for all aspects of a story.
But how can you go about applying Chekhov's gun to your own writing? Well, you can start by getting rid of false guns! This means removing objects that do not relate to the overall narrative.
This concept makes sense for characters and scenes in the story. If you ask us, we would rather read about two characters that are well developed than a bunch of other characters that don't contribute to the plot of the story.
Here's a quick tip: Before you even start your first chapter, create an Excel spreadsheet where you use Chekhov's gun to plot your story in sequence, much like how young playwrights would structure their first production.
Why Does Chekhov's Gun Work?
A question that a junior writer may ask is, "How will Chekhov's gun improve my story?" Well, luckily for you, the answer to this question is more simple than one would think.
Chekhov's gun works as a plot device. It leaves the audience feeling satisfied. Think of a short story that you recently read. Were you satisfied with how they used red herrings? Or were there just too many extraneous details?
Well, Chekhov's gun works to provide a reason for every element of a story. In this way, the reader isn't left disappointed as the story comes to an end.
Ultimately, you can think of Chekhov's guns as a dramatic principle that not only establishes an expectation, but ensures that that expectation is fulfilled.
Other examples of the success of Chekhov's gun are in the content of a news report. If a car exploded, you would want to know what caused the explosion, right? Right!
However, it is important to mention that a red herring won't always be useful when using Chekhov's gun. Consider the news example. It is a perfect example of how using inconsequential details will derail the reader.
We need to remember that although Chekhov's gun is always applicable, the elements that the writer has added may not always be beneficial.
Practical Applications of Chekhov's Gun
Let's work through a well-known example of Chekhov's gun: the Harry Potter series. It's filled with examples of Chekhov's gun!
Let's look at The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in the series. Vernon Dursley, Harry's uncle, is outraged at having heard of a mass murderer escaping prison. But why was he angry at a situation that didn't involve him directly?
Chekhov's gun explains that the reason for his anger, as the reader later discovers, was that the escaped mass murderer was actually Sirius Black, a friend of Harry's deceased parents! Since Vernon doesn't want anything to do with wizards, knowing that Sirius Black is one of them was the cherry on the cake!
The principle of Chekhov's gun is that every name, person, and thing mentioned needs to be accounted for. In this example, why even mention the name Sirius Black unless it was significant to the story?
With this in mind, it's important to remember that when characters are introduced early on in a story, sometimes the big reveal as to their importance only comes at the end.
But a point of caution: Using a red herring repetitively may result in the reader becoming confused by the writing.
Although popular articles use red herrings to grab the attention of a reader, there is an unspoken agreement that the number of red herrings should not outnumber the amount of characters in a story.
Chekhov's gun is one of the most practical ways to build tension in your writing, which is exactly what was done in Harry's story. Simply by telling readers that a mass murderer is on the loose, a multitude of questions automatically start swarming in your mind!
Another story that followed Chekhov's advice was The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Here, when Arthur Dent decides to kill a fly and eat some oysters at the beginning of the movie, we only realize at the end that Arthur killed every reincarnation of Agrajag. This is the perfect example of Chekhov's gun.
Let's go through another example from a well-loved series, The Lord of The Rings. Here, the writing is supplemented by Chekhov's gun in such a way that the reader is left stunned at how everything has come together!
At the beginning of the hobbits' adventure, they receive enchanted daggers. Much later, Merry stabs the Witch-King of Angmar. Only after this event do we learn that it was the enchanted abilities of the daggers that enabled enemies of Angmar to be killed.
Looking at Ready Player One, at the beginning of the story, the writer made perfect use of the principle of Chekhov's gun. The act in which the main character plays a perfect game of Pac-Man is only revealed in the writing near the end of the story.
The extra life won from that game causes the character to not die. If you ask us, it's the perfect segue into the final act! Remember that although the reader may find the characters in an unusual situation, Chekhov's gun needs to make sure that everything makes sense.
A few other examples of Chekhov's gun include A Song of Ice and Fire, and Back To The Future.
A Few Tips on How to Use Chekhov's Gun in Your Writing
Now you know Chekhov's method of encouraging a writer to flesh out all aspects of their plot in their writing. His main aim with this concept was to allow the reader the ease of understanding exactly what was going on in the story!
However, Anton Chekhov himself said that his principle is not omnipotent. Use more red herrings than characters to throw the reader off. However, when writing, just remember to explain why that red herring was there.
When writing with the principle of Chekhov's gun in mind, always try to picture how the reader will respond to your writing.
You don't want there to be so many different avenues by which objects are connected to characters that the reader completely loses track of the story's plot! This form of writing would make anyone close the book without question.
Using Chekhov's gun in moderation is the key to its success. This is exactly what Chekhov wanted every writer to understand.
Chekhov's gun is more than just linking parts of a story together so that it culminates in a story's last few pages. It allows those who are reading or watching to understand every point of the plot as it unfolds.
Where there are red herrings (i.e., objects or characters to throw you off the plot), make sure that they don't overshadow the intent of why Chekhov's gun exists.
To create a novel or movie that is bound to go viral, one needs to adhere to the principles of Chekhov's gun. It is a tried-and-tested method of establishing the perfect timeline of events that veteran writers have used for years.