Have you ever read a story or watched a movie/play where you noticed a certain item being used as an important plot device in a major scene, only to realize that the object in question had already made an appearance in a previous scene as some seemingly insignificant prop in the background?

Well, what you witnessed was the figurative (or in some cases, literal) firing of a Chekhov’s Gun.

The Loaded Rifle on the Wall

The Chekhov’s Gun is a literary technique that places significance on a certain story element that was introduced earlier on as an unimportant detail. The trope is based on a dramatic principle conceived by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), which states that every detail presented in a story must either be necessary to the plot in some way or removed from the narrative altogether.

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 (S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911)

(CC Image by tmib_seattle via Flickr)

Of course, sometimes it’s not just a metaphor…
(CC Image by tmib_seattle via Flickr)

It’s important to note here that a Chekhov’s Gun is not necessarily an actual gun; the playwright’s example was merely used in reference to live theater, where a loaded gun on stage would pose an unnecessary safety hazard if it wasn’t going to be used as anything more than a background prop. Rather, the device is a metaphor for any element of a story that can become important later on. It doesn’t even have to be an object; it can just as easily be a character, a skill, a line of dialogue, etc. A full list of possibilities and variants can be found at the TV Tropes Chekhov’s Gun Depot.

Handling a Chekhov’s Gun in Your Writing

There are two main concepts connected with this trope:

  1. Conservation of Detail – Every detail presented in a story has an important reason for being there
  2. Foreshadowing – A detail given early on is an indication of a plot point that will happen later in the narrative

While a Chekhov’s Gun should really be used with the former concept in mind, it’s most commonly associated with the latter. Writers will often use this trope as a tool to indicate upcoming events in the story, usually in a subtle manner that goes virtually unnoticed the first time around and becomes clear after the revelation of the foreshadowed plot point.

So how should you use this technique in your own stories? To properly execute a Chekhov’s Gun, the element in question must have some level of presence established in its introduction, not necessarily so much that it gives away a potential plot twist, but enough that the audience will realize it was there all along by the time it becomes significant. This will keep your readers from assuming you pulled some random solution out of thin air to hastily tie the plot together at the end, and thus prevent you from evoking their disappointment.

Also, bear in mind that there is such a thing as too many Chekhov’s Guns in one story. While you shouldn’t feel limited to just one per narrative (and many writers aren’t, myself included), you should still take care not to go overboard with the trope. Of course, these limits may vary depending on the type of work in which it’s used; for example, fantasy sagas or mystery thrillers may depend heavily on these devices to help drive the plot (as seen in the Harry Potter series, which even has its own Chekhov’s Gun page on TV Tropes), whereas simpler action stories could work just fine with only a couple at most. So if you’re planning to write long narratives full of twists, you might be able to make good use of this technique throughout the entire story arc. It’s worth noting, though, that if the plot becomes convoluted enough, your readers might eventually start looking for significance in the tiniest details to try to find Chekhov’s Guns that you may or may not have placed in your story. But then again, maybe that’s exactly what you want.

The Chekhov’s Gun can be a useful device in fiction, provided it’s used correctly and in proper tone with the story. Whether you choose to use this technique for major plot points or just to add some interesting twists, be sure to always keep in mind the importance of only including details with a given purpose, and you’ll be able to build a narrative that highlights the plot and tells a story that can be freely complex on the surface while remaining simple and straightforward at its core. And that, in my opinion, is the best type of story a writer can create. Happy writing!


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