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novel writing techniques

What Is Chekhov’s Gun and How Can You Use It?

March 26, 2023
March 26, 2023

You may have heard the term ‘Chekhov’s gun’ thrown around in conversations about effective writing and plot development – particularly if you’re writing crime and suspense. But how clear are you on what the Chekhov’s gun principle is really about, and how might it influence your own writing?

In this blog post, we delve into Chekhov’s gun – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and how, by using its logic, you might improve the coherence or payoff in your story.

That being said, remember at The Novelry we value tools not rules! If adhering faithfully to Chekhov’s gun works for your novel, then great! But if you want to fly in the face of Anton Chekhov and include lots of details that bring your world to life but don’t hold immense narrative significance, that might be right for your story.

Without any further ado, let’s explore the principle of Chekhov’s gun!

Who was Anton Chekhov? The origin of the term ‘Chekhov’s gun’

Before getting into the basics of Chekhov’s gun, let’s take a look at who came up with the principle and why we should pay any mind to it...

Anton Chekhov was a nineteenth-century Russian playwright and writer of short stories, considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of all time and a forefather of the modernist movement in theatre. He earned praise from the likes of George Bernard Shaw, and influenced writers around the world both directly through mentorship, and indirectly through his incredible literary output.

What is Chekhov’s gun?

Let’s start with the basics. The term ‘Chekhov’s gun’ refers to what is essentially a pretty simple idea. Boiled down, it’s a writing principle stating that if you draw attention to an extraneous component or particular detail in one scene (particularly towards the start of the story), it should play a crucial part in the overall narrative. Here’s how Chekhov wrote about it:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story... 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.
—Anton Chekhov

Of course, you might have a story in which there’s really no place for a loaded rifle. That doesn’t mean the principle can’t help you tell your story impactfully: there’s no need for a literal gun to appear for you to take Chekhov’s advice. It’s really about avoiding any red herring, unnecessary elements, false promises or Deus ex machina. It could be anything from a broken mirror to a bottle of wine, embers in a fireplace to a silent secondary character hovering in the shadows.

Rather than a plot device in and of itself, it’s a writing practice that can streamline and sharpen your prose. It’s about honouring the unspoken agreement between the reader and the writer, and meeting audience expectations.

Chekhov’s Gun vs. foreshadowing

Although the principle of Chekhov’s gun is, well, a principle rather than a technique, it’s often bound up with another literary device: foreshadowing.

The principle of Chekhov’s gun isn’t foreshadowing in itself, but following Chekhov’s advice can keep foreshadowing front-of-mind as you write, and keep your foreshadowing honest, so to speak.

If you have a pistol hanging on the wall or your main character carries a gun as they leave the house in your opening scene, your readers’ spidey senses might be tingling – we could have a strong inkling that we’ll see that same gun fired in the second or third chapter.

Again, the element introduced needn’t be a gun. You might show a compass that doesn’t point north, as in Pirates of the Caribbean, or a snazzy new piece of spyware, like in many James Bond films and novels.

The principle of Chekhov’s gun isn’t foreshadowing in itself, but following Chekhov’s advice can keep foreshadowing front-of-mind as you write, and keep your foreshadowing honest.

It works as a dramatic principle too. In a play, it might be a stage prop that doesn’t quite belong in the setting, or one that the actors draw attention to (even if it’s by failing to mention it) – an empty crib, a sack of gold, a pair of boots. Such details might not be immediately explained, but, according to Chekhov, if they appear in the first act, we should understand their significance by the final act.

In fact, we see a perfect example of the principle at work – unsurprisingly – in one of Chekhov’s own plays. In Act I of The Seagull, the main character carries a rifle on to the stage. By the last act – you guessed it – he has used that same rifle to commit suicide. Such a detail might appear irrelevant or superfluous if it weren’t crucial to the overall story by the end.

Examples of Chekhov’s Gun

You can find examples of this principle at work in all kinds of art spanning pretty much every genre. It’s not just clue-laden mysteries or action-packed spy stories. Let’s consider a few – be aware that there will be spoilers for each of these works!


Paddington

For example, consider Paddington Bear and the marmalade sandwich he keeps under his hat. Yes, it serves in his general character development, but it also becomes particularly useful when he needs to get out of a jam (if you’ll forgive the pun). It might seem small or silly, but it’s a great example of Chekhov’s gun.


The Princess Diaries

In the YA smash hit The Princess Diaries, beauty guru Paolo casually dismisses the need for confidentiality agreements – he knows how to keep a secret. But it’s not long before he’s blabbed to the paparazzi, and everyone in the country (not to mention Mia’s school) knows exactly who she is.


The Hunger Games

There are also plenty in The Hunger Games series. For example, in Catching Fire, we learn several times that Finnick counts the bread they receive as gifts – perhaps to an obsessive degree. Later, we find out he was in on District 13’s plan to break the tributes out, and bread was a signal. There was a secret code, with the district the bread came from indicating the day they’d be rescued, while the number of rolls signalled the hour.


Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling peppered countless Chekhov’s guns throughout the Harry Potter series. One example of Chekhov’s gun with a long wait to the payoff is Dumbledore’s nose being described as ‘crooked, looking as though it had been broken at least twice’ at the very beginning of the very first book. It’s not until Deathly Hallows that we find out it was broken by his brother Aberforth at the funeral of their sister Ariana.

Another great Dumbledore-related ‘gun’ is the sherbet lemon (lemon drop in the American text) he offers McGonagall in those early scenes of the first novel. It’s a detail that might seem barely worth noticing, and might bypass the casual reader’s attention. But Dumbledore goes on to use it as the password for his office in Chamber of Secrets, establishing a pattern of using sweets as his office passwords, which ultimately means Harry can guess the password and enter the office in Goblet of Fire. Chekhov's gun can be a great device for character development too.


Desperation

For other examples, we could look to the great Stephen King. In Desperation, a shotgun shell we saw earlier becomes crucial as we reach the final few pages: the characters use it as a blasting cap to detonate explosives that trap a demon in an abandoned mine.


Howard’s End

You can even see Chekhov’s gun in classic literary fiction. Remember the Schlegel family’s sword in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End? It’s introduced early on, but eventually Charles Wilcox wields it on Leonard Bast.


Les Misérables

In fact, there are examples of Chekhov’s gun that predate Chekhov himself! In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, Éponine writes the sentence ‘the cops are here’ to prove to Marius that she is literate. Later, Marius uses that note to save Leblanc’s life.


The Odyssey

And, OK, Les Misérables was published two years after Chekhov’s birth. But there are much earlier examples. The first book of The Odyssey references spears on the wall of Odysseus’s home. By the end, Odysseus and Telemachus use those spears to kill the suitors that have invaded (could E.M. Forster have found some inspiration here...?).


Ways to use Chekhov’s Gun in your writing

Whether you’re working on a short story, a play, a musical, a novel or a film script, you can keep Chekhov’s gun in mind to add layers to your writing and heighten reader satisfaction.

To get you thinking, here are a few tips on how the thinking behind Chekhov’s gun might affect your story and how you tell it.

1. Remember Chekhov’s gun isn’t a plot device

The first thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t a technique, and it’s certainly not a prescription. While you might have a plot device that also qualifies as a Chekhov’s gun, the idea itself is simply a theory; a dramatic principle designed to help you economise and focus the detail within your plotted narratives.

It’s less something you set out to do, and more something you choose to follow (or ignore!).


2. Choose your details carefully

This is at the heart of the point Chekhov seems to have been getting at. As you plan your story, or indeed as you write or edit, think carefully about every detail you include. Is it self-indulgent – something that looks pretty or sounds symbolic, but doesn’t actually bear much relevance to your plot? Or does it actively contribute to the overall plot structure?

If it’s the former, consider (again, consider – this isn’t a hard and fast rule!) excising the extraneous unnecessary detail.

young playwrights often focus on chekhov's guns with everything from a lawful wife to poisonous plants


3. Remember not every detail needs to be a Chekhov’s gun

That brings us nicely on to the next point. Not every detail in your story can serve as a plot device. You should feel free to break the rules sometimes.

What’s more, red herrings and misdirects are often necessary and very intentional. It can be great for plot development to throw the reader off subsequent plot twists, and to subvert audience expectations.

Many writers have shown that defying the principle underlying Chekhov’s gun purposely and thoughtfully can be wonderful. It keeps us guessing, piecing things together, and generally allows us to be active participants in your story. And isn’t that half the joy of any story, whatever form it’s told in?

Red herrings and misdirects are often necessary and very intentional.

That being said, every red herring probably should, in its own way, adhere to the ideas underlying Chekhov’s gun. In other words, your red herrings should all have a satisfactory explanation within your narrative.

If a false suspect has muddy shoes and blood on their hands, then at some point before Act III, we need to understand how they got to be so mucky, and why they weren’t the culprit. Give us their alibi!

So if you have a great red herring in mind that can throw us off the scent, feel free to include it. Just make sure you’ve done it on purpose, and that it makes sense in your own story arc.


4. Introduce important elements early on

One great lesson we can learn from this idea is that it’s powerful to give readers key information quite early in your narrative. Don’t hold everything back for one huge reveal at the end – it often makes for quite an unsatisfying read!

In fact, it’s some of the advice we hear for suspense writing, and was a key part of Anna Mazzola’s tips for masterful pacing in a novel.


5. Foreshadow your plot twists

We’ve made the point that Chekhov’s gun doesn’t refer solely to an ordinary object or an actual rifle hanging on the wall. But keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be any object at all; it can be actions your characters take, words they use, unexpected reactions they have or even just a character trait.

Think about how you can foreshadow plot twists with seemingly small details that eventually make total sense.

For example, if your protagonist is married to a serial killer (but we or your protagonist don’t yet know they’re a serial killer), you might foreshadow their murderous tendencies by having other characters comment on the husband’s unusually travel-heavy work schedule, or his near-hoarder status (necessitating a remote storage facility).

The fact these little details pay off when the twist is revealed is Chekhov’s gun in practice.


6. Apply the logic to your scenes

You can also take the logic further and apply it to each of your scenes – even each of your chapters. It’s part of what we recommend in our popular fiction editing course: consider the purpose and relevance of every scene to your overall narrative.

A practical way to do this is to map out your scenes. You can approach this in whatever way works best for you: a spreadsheet, flashcards, a list in your notebook. Then, for each scene, identify the importance of its major elements, then ask yourself what its overall significance is, and what questions it raises or answers.


7. Don’t stick too religiously to Chekhov’s gun

Above all, remember that this is just one more tool in your writing armoury, and there are lots of techniques for creating an engaging story. But if you treat Chekov’s gun like a rule and apply it to every detail in your novel, you’ll end up with a story that’s contrived, flat and lifeless. It’s very often the unexpected details in an unusual context that make a story sing, and make it feel real and immersive for a reader. Not everything has to have a strict, active purpose in your narrative!

Your editor can help you with Chekhov’s gun – and so much more

Want to make Chekhov’s gun work in a satisfying way for you? To ensure it hasn’t sucked all the elements of the life out of your story, while also not leaving extraneous details, pointless red herrings, false guns or unresolved set-ups, get yourself a professional editor.

At The Novelry we have a team of expert editors from major publishing houses who can use Chekhov’s gun and other key principles in practical ways to make your story the best it can be, from the first chapter right through to the last act. Sign up to a creative writing course today for expert writing and editing advice!




Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team