Pretend you just discovered me while I was loading a parachute. You might ask me about it. Why a parachute? What does that have to do with writing or Chekhov’s gun?
I go on to explain that the parachute is a metaphor for giving your character a plausible way out of a high-flying situation. By planting the parachute early on in the story, you can leave your audience in suspense. How will the parachute come into play? More importantly, will it seem plausible when your character jumps out of a plane?
It will if you set it up just right. In this case, I’ve just planted a literary device known as Chekhov’s gun. Here’s how you can do the same in your writing.
What Is Chekhov’s Gun?
The idea behind Chekhov’s gun is simple: If you introduce an interesting element early on in your story, you better have a plan to revisit the same element at some point later in the plot. For instance, if you have two characters remarking on a gun in the first act of the story, the gun should reappear in the action of the story in a later scene.
The Origin of Chekhov’s Gun
Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright and short story writer, penned the following advice for young writers:
One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.
Now, the concept of Chekhov’s gun refers to Chekhov’s belief that writers shouldn’t introduce a significant element in their story if it’s not going to play some important role later on.
Famous Examples of Chekhov’s Gun in Action
- In The Hunger Games, protagonist Katniss Everdeen reveals early on that she has a knowledge of poisonous berries. Katniss goes on to use this knowledge to save Peeta’s life and trick the Capitol into letting two people survive the hunger games for the first time.
- In the film Signs, one scene highlights the homerun-hitting background of Joaquin Phoenix’s character. At first, this scene almost seems out of place—or perhaps it’s just a bit of character development—until the character fights off aliens with a baseball bat in the third act.
- In the TV series Breaking Bad, a foiled assassination plot leaves Jesse Pinkman with a cigarette full of the poison ricin. This later becomes a major plot element Walter White tries to use to his advantage, but ultimately fractures their relationship.
How to Use Chekhov’s Gun in Writing
Chekhov’s gun first serves as an essential storytelling device: You shouldn’t present an implausible solution to your character’s struggles without first giving it some storytelling heft. In many cases, Chekhov’s gun is simply there to corroborate the internal logic of your story.
For instance, in the director’s commentary for Gladiator, director Ridley Scott mentions inserting a scene where Commodus is training with swords in the first act. Without this scene, the audience might assume a prince of Rome wouldn’t be able to hold his own in gladiatorial combat.
Chekhov’s guns are also useful for showing the growth of your characters. In the Hunger Games example above, Katniss first learns about foraging and poisonous berries because food is so scarce. But over the course of the movie, Katniss’s knowledge of berries becomes more than just a symptom of her poverty. She uses it to change her fortune.
That should tell you why writers use Chekhov’s gun. But what about the how? Keep these tips in mind:
- Beware of big setups with little payoff. The most important principle of Chekhov’s gun is that your story should have some degree of internal consistency. Why spend 10 minutes of a play, for example, developing a Chekhov’s gun if you’re not going to do something with it in the third act?
- Don’t let Chekhov’s gun theories bog you down in every detail. Some details can be there to add to the vividness of your writing and the depth of your characters. Writers like Ernest Hemingway criticized the idea of Chekhov’s gun as unrealistic and noted that even trivial details could add to the lifelike quality of a story.
- Use Chekhov’s guns as guidance for revisions. Let’s say you’re the author of The Hunger Games, and you get to the end of writing your first draft. You know poison berries have to play a part role in your story, but you haven’t told the reader anything about how Katniss knows about poison berries. In this case, you would go back to the first act and revise, planting a Chekhov’s gun to provide your story with the plausibility that makes the third act seem credible.
Examples of Chekhov’s Guns in Action
How do you keep readers guessing? You’ll find the authors who are best at creating twists are happy to plant plausible Chekhov’s guns into their stories—but with enough disguise that you don’t notice it.
Tyrion did as he was bid, but as he reached for the handle Joff kicked the chalice through his legs. “Pick it up! Are you as clumsy as you are ugly?” He had to crawl under the table to find the thing. “Good, now fill it with wine.”
This sample, from George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, takes place as King Joffrey is publicly embarrassing Tyrion Lannister. It’s a chapter about a wedding feast, featuring detail after detail about everything from cheese-and-onion pies to roast herons. Martin has us so distracted with the compelling plot of the scene, as well as the character development, that we barely notice what’s going on inside the chalice.
And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all. And it wasn’t.
This Chekov’s gun from Stephen Hawking’s Shawshank Redemption is cleverly disguised. We think this statement is just the narrator (Red) telling the audience about how good he was at sneaking items into the prison. But because Rita Hayworth makes her way into the title of the novella by Stephen King, we have to wonder about it.
Be warned, spoilers ahead! Later, when it turns out this poster covers up a tunnel Dufresne has dug to escape the prison, we realize just how long this digging has been going on. Since 1949, when King first planted Chekhov’s gun.
Planting Chekhov’s Gun in Your Story
Some say writing a thriller is all about the element of surprise. But if you really want to mess with your readers’ heads, you can find ways to use Chekhov’s gun you plant in plain sight as the seed for later twists. Even better, you can use a properly seeded Chekhov’s gun to end your piece, particularly if you’re finding that writing the conclusion is getting difficult.
Speaking of which, I think I’ll use my parachute now. That is, after all, why I packed it.
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