What is Chekhov's Gun?
April 18, 2023
Chekhov's Gun was intended to be advice for playwrights and novelists, from a writer working in a time before there even were movie theaters and televisions.
In a visual medium like cinema, however, where filmmakers can literally direct the audience's attention to any specific element they wish it to see, it's a principle that's arguably even more relevant than it was originally, over a century ago.
It's called "Chekhov's Gun," and every screenwriter should have it in their creative holster.
No, Not That Chekhov
First order of business in a blog post tackling the subject of Chekhov: no, we're not talking about the navigator with the Monkees haircut from the original Star Trek. That's Pavel Chekov (only one "h.")
"Chekhov's Gun" is a storytelling principle articulated by the great 19th-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (two "h's," no bowl cut, the "gun" in question is not a phaser).
Although it may well be the name of the former was a tribute of sorts to the latter. But I digress. Let me beam back down to Earth and get to the point.
Chekhov's Gun Meaning
In several letters he wrote in the late 19th century, Anton Chekhov stated variations of the following writing advice:
"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
I've also read in other sources that the exact same letter actually phrased it like this, where he appears to be talking about novels more than stage plays, but it's the exact same principle:
"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."
While the exact quote and its sources appear to be a bit sketchy, it's widely accepted that Chekhov passed along similar advice several times during his life, so the principle has come to be known as "Chekhov's Gun."
If this "rule" (I don't much like the word "rule" when it comes to writing and won't use it again) only applied exclusively to the appearance of firearms, I don't think it would have persisted as a notion that is still relevant to dramatic or literary writers today. It has, however, and that's because Chekhov's Gun has been interpreted by generations since his time to mean, more generally, "Don't introduce any element into the script that isn't going to pay off later."
Chekhov's Gun: The Critics
Sounds solid enough, but it should be noted that the principle of Chekhov's Gun has had its critics, one of whom was Ernest Hemingway, Although he didn't specifically name-check Chekhov, Hemingway included a takedown of the concept in The Art of the Short Story, his preface to a collection of his short stories, published for student writers.
His exact rebuttal, including some typically not-okay Hemingwayesque misogyny:
"It is also untrue that if a gun hangs on the wall when you open up the story, it must be fired by page fourteen. The chances are, gentlemen, that if it hangs upon the wall, it will not even shoot. If there are no questions, shell we press on?"
Others have pointed out that in one of Chekhov's most seminal works, his play The Cherry Orchard, there are two loaded guns that never go off. Defenders claim that this is because the unfired weapons have thematically symbolic importance.
One thing about writers: they'll debate any point endlessly. Anton Chekhov died in 1904, without ever having seen a television show or feature film, the first one being made two years later (Australia's The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906). Yet, here we are, still picking apart the poor guy's advice.
My view is that there's a lot of missing the point going on, here. I think Chekhov was making a dramatically specific example of a broader, and still rock-solid principle of dramatic writing: he was really talking about foreshadowing.
Chekhov's Gun & Foreshadowing
"Foreshadowing" is an essential storytelling technique that can occur anywhere in a script, but tends to be placed early in a scene, sequence or the overall narrative. Think of it as planting a clue, setting up something that's going to pay off later.
These clues can be extremely subtle or glaringly obvious — either way, they pack a pleasing punch when audiences recognize them later.
Chekhov's Gun Examples
The Shawshank Redemption
After a lifetime spent in prison, the elderly character Brooks painfully struggles to adjust to normality and ultimately, fatally fails. Later, when Red is also paroled, he lives in the same room and takes the same job that Brooks had previously, creating tension and fear in the mind of the audience that Red is going to share his fate. (The Shawshank Redemption has a more subtle example of foreshadowing that's a single line of dialogue: Red tells Andy early on in the story that the idea of escaping from the prison is a "sh-tty pipe dream." Later, Andy escapes…through a sewer line, a literal "pipe of sh-t.")
The scene where Captain Koons tells young Butch the story of his late father's gold watch foreshadows the scene later where Butch risks his life to go back to his apartment and retrieve it. The earlier scene, which initially seemed unconnected to the larger narrative, sets up the watch's importance to Butch emotionally.
Throughout this cult comedy, beleaguered cubicle drone Milton is repeatedly humiliated by managers who are trying to make him quit. Each time, he mutters under his breath variations of the line, "Okay, but I could set the building on fire." Only the audience ever hears this, but guess what happens in Act III? Milton is a minor supporting character but his act of arson unintentionally saves the protagonist, Peter, from being arrested for embezzlement.
There are also examples that are quite ironic and "meta:"
The name of each bar the friends visit during their pub crawl foreshadows something that's about to happen at that location.
The Lord of the Rings
The title of each movie in this trilogy foreshadows something important that's going to happen in that installment: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King. So do most of the Star Wars saga titles like The Phantom Menace, The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi.
There's a flip side to Chekhov's Gun, which warns against setting up an element of the story that never pays off. But what if something pays off that was never set up? That's what is often referred to as a "Deus Ex Machina" ("ghost in the machine").
The classic example of this is the many vintage Westerns where the cavalry suddenly appears at the climax to save the main characters, although the cavalry was never set up earlier in the story. Deploy the deus ex machina at your peril, because audiences find this incredibly annoying.
Chekhov's Trickery: Red Herrings
Defying Chekhov's advice intentionally can be an effective type of misdirection called a "Red Herring." This is when the author foreshadows or hints at something falsely in order to mislead the audience and some of the characters.
Examples of Red Herrings
Game of Thrones
In the eighth and final season, a series of red herrings (including a strategically-placed scroll from the past) lead the audience to believe that Littlefinger has woven a fatal conflict between sisters Arya and Sansa — but it turns out they've been pretending to be deceived by his plot and have been onto him all along.
In Hitchcock's classic thriller, the entire plot of the first act is actually a red herring. When Marion Crane — the character we think is the protagonist — is murdered, the narrative switches focus to Norman Bates, a seemingly minor supporting player whose story now takes over.
Mare of Easttown
Virtually the entire narrative of this show is an intentional series of red herrings that constantly lead the audience to believe that various supporting characters are the killer that Mare is hunting. At different points, the viewer is set up to believe that the killer is the victim's father, her ex-boyfriend, a kidnapper guilty of an earlier crime, Mare's boyfriend, and even her ex-husband, and others. None of which turn out to be true.
All of these example titles were critically acclaimed and popular with audiences, who love it when they're misled — intentionally. It's not really breaking Chekhov's principle because the writer has introduced an element that does indeed have a purpose — just not the one the audience is led to believe.
Chekhov's Gun: Out of Control?
The notion of Chekhov's Gun has proven "sticky" for so long because it's an effective storytelling technique. So much so that it has now been applied to lots of related types of foreshadowing: Chekhov's Skill, Chekhov's News and Chekhov's Hobby are all actual things.
But every one of them is the same thing: specific examples of the general principle of foreshadowing, a storytelling technique that can greatly enhance the viewer's experience and should be an important tool in every dramatic writer's creative arsenal.
P.S. (Easter Eggs)
Foreshadowing should not be confused with "Easter Eggs," which are ironic elements included in a narrative that call out aspects of the story related to other stories, characters, etc. There's a difference between setting up a future development in this particular story versus a pleasing reference to a related but totally different story.
Written by: Karl WilliamsKarl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He has won the Comedy and Sci-Fi Awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Jack Nicholson Prize for Excellence in Screenwriting at UCLA, where he earned his MFA.