Chekhov’s Gun

From Now Novel:

A concept that describes how every element of a story should contribute to the whole. It comes from Anton Chekhov’s famous book writing advice: “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.”

The Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic theory that asserts that every component of a story must serve a purpose, and that irrelevant components should be eliminated. Dramatically, if a gun is seen in the first act, it should be seen in the third act in a story that follows a three-act format. The term alludes to an approach pioneered by Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright and short story writer.

One can see Chekhov’s gun principle in action in The Seagull, Chekhov’s own work, wherein the protagonist carries a weapon onto the stage in Act I and then commits suicide with the rifle at the end of the play. Chekhov’s gun functions as a kind of foreshadowing in this way. Foreshadowing and the phrase “Chekhov’s gun” are closely linked, and many people use them interchangeably.

Chekhov’s gun is sometimes compared to the MacGuffin, a plot element. Yet it is effectively the opposite of Chekhov’s gun in that the thing, event, or figure utilized to start the story has no bearing on its conclusion. A red herring is another plot device that contrasts with Chekhov’s gun in that it is not necessary for the gun to fire and merely serves to divert the audience from the real weapon, such as a knife.

It is important that writers honor commitments to their readers and not give the impression that they are “making false promises.” Chekhov’s gun principle serves as a timely reminder to write with purpose and to wrap everything up nicely at the end of the story.

Further Reading

How to Use Chekhov’s Gun to Craft a Compelling Plot by Mallika Vasak, Medium

Chekhov’s Gun: How to Ruin a Story in a Perfect Way by Chris Meyer, The Mind Collection

The Case Against Chekhov’s Gun by Andrea Phillips, Deus Ex Machinatio

Why Chekhov’s Gun is Wrong and Worthless by Oliver Adams, Letter Review

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