In This Article
- Why Is Chekhov’s Gun Called That?
- What Is the Literal Chekhov’s Gun?
- What Is an Example of Chekhov’s Gun?
- What Are the Exceptions to Chekhov’s Gun?
- What Is the Difference Between Chekhov’s Gun and a MacGuffin?
- What Is the Difference Between Chekhov’s Gun and a Red Herring?
- Is Chekhov’s Gun the Same as Foreshadowing?
- How Can I Ensure Proper Use of Chekov’s Gun When Writing?
Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle where an element introduced into a story first seems unimportant but will later take on great significance. The principle postulates that any seemingly unimportant element introduced into a story—an object, a character trait, a backstory, an allergy—should later have relevance.
Many writers use Chekhov’s Gun as a guiding principle to their work, as it reminds them to only introduce essential elements into their stories. These elements later provide dramatic tension and payoff.
Why Is Chekhov’s Gun Called That?
The phrase is attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Chekhov is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time, a master of the short story. In letters to colleagues outlining his writing techniques, he has explained that if you introduce something in a story—say, a gun—then that gun should later be used. Otherwise, the audience is left wondering why it was brought to their attention in the first place, as it did not further the plot or characters. This could lead to disappointment or frustration.
“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.”
- Anton Chekhov in letter to A.S. Gruzinsky.
Not every author abides by Chekhov’s Gun, Ernest Hemingway disagreed with the principle. Although Ernest conceded readers love to seek out meaning in everything, he was big on including details in his stories that didn’t always matter later.
What Is the Literal Chekhov’s Gun?
Chekhov uses this device himself when he wrote the 1896 play The Seagull, where the main character Konstantin introduces a gun early in the play, and uses it at the end.
Although Chekhov’s Gun seems to refer to a weapon, the actual “gun” can be anything at all—a gun, a found watch, a bottle of pills, a scent, a dripping faucet, a backstory about a character’s evil twin brother—anything that will be brought up again later in the story with significance.
Watch this video for more about setup and suspense when it comes to Chekhov’s Gun:
What Is an Example of Chekhov’s Gun?
Here are some examples of films that make use of Chekhov’s Gun:
- Every James Bond film (early on in each movie, Quartermaster “Q” supplies 007 with a gadget that later saves his life).
- Aliens. In the beginning of the film, the character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) uses a power loader—a hydraulic exoskeleton suit—to move heavy equipment on a spaceship. To the surprise of the audience, she will later use that same power loader to defeat the alien—but by that point they are familiar with the device’s capabilities.
- The Usual Suspects. There’s an office bulletin board displayed in most of the film, situated behind U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) as he questions con artist Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). The board becomes very significant in the last few minutes of the movie when, by looking at it, Kajun realizes everything he’s been told has been a lie.
- Lethal Weapon 2. Early on in the film Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) shows his co-workers his ability to dislocate his shoulder on demand, by escaping from a straitjacket. Later, the bad guys tie him up and throw him in a lake but thanks to this ability, Riggs escapes. However, without the earlier scene as reference, the audience would have been scratching their heads and wondering ‘how did he do that?’
- Iron Man. After being injured, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) builds his own heart replacement, consisting of a mini arc reactor. He later replaces it with a better one and the original is put inside a small glass showcase. However, much later in the film Stark is attacked, the new reactor is removed, and he is left for dead. Tony breaks the glass case and re-installs the original reactor in order to survive.
Chekhov’s gun works because there is a payoff. It makes the element previously introduced meaningful or satisfying. Audiences sometimes have fun with this, because they can either predict its later use, or it provides them with a satisfying “ah ha” moment.
A perfect example of this (spoiler ahead!) is the movie Citizen Kane. When billionaire Charles Foster Kane (Orsen Welles) dies, the last word he utters is “Rosebud.” A reporter spends the entire movie researching and interviewing many close associates of Kane trying to figure out who or what “Rosebud” is, but never solves the mystery.
However, the audience learns its meaning in the last shot of the movie when we see all of Kane’s personal belongings being burned. In a close-up of his childhood sleigh, we see the name “Rosebud” imprinted on it just before it is engulfed in flames. The sleigh was introduced early in the movie and was likely Kane’s last fond childhood memory—but the audience did not know it had a name, and it is never seen again until the final shots.
What Are the Exceptions to Chekhov’s Gun?
The MacGuffin and a Red Herring are exceptions to Chekhov’s Gun, both are explained below.
What Is the Difference Between Chekhov’s Gun and a MacGuffin?
The term MacGuffin was coined by English screenwriter Angus MacPhail and adopted by legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin helps drive the plot forward whereas Chekhov’s Gun is a specific element or item that is briefly focused on and then later returns in the story.
For example, in Casablanca, the stolen letters of transit that both heroes and villains alike are desperately searching for throughout the movie is considered the MacGuffin. That’s because finding those letters drives a great deal of the action or decisions made by the film’s characters. The song in the movie, “As Time Goes By” would be considered an example of Chekhov’s Gun, as it is introduced early on and then focused on later as part of the main characters’ love story.
What Is the Difference Between Chekhov’s Gun and a Red Herring?
Chekhov’s Gun and a Red Herring are opposites of each other; Chekhov’s Gun introduces an element that may seem insignificant but will become important or crucial later, while a Red Herring appears to be important from the get-go but turns out to be nothing. In fact, a Red Herring could be considered what is known as a failed Chekhov’s gun, as there’s a setup but no payoff.
Is Chekhov’s Gun the Same as Foreshadowing?
It is not. Foreshadowing are hints that something is going to happen. For example, we have a character named Evelyn who is about to enter a decrepit, deserted mansion. As she moves up the walk to the door, dramatic music plays. The audience (but not Evelyn) also see a curtain move on the second floor—as if someone (or some thing) is watching. The music and the curtain move are foreshadowing that something scary is about to happen.
Now let’s suppose Evelyn gets trapped in the house and is approached by the house owner’s evil spirit, who died in 1765. An example of Chekhov’s Gun would be the cross that Evelyn put on that same morning while dressing—to the audience it looks like an inconsequential detail at the time, but later it helps her to escape by scaring the evil spirit away.
How Can I Ensure Proper Use of Chekov’s Gun When Writing?
When writing, don’t dwell on anything unimportant. Certainly, introduce the scene and its characters, but don’t focus specifically on anything irrelevant or something that will have no meaning later. Check your work once done to ensure that all characters have a purpose, even a small one (no one should be introduced and then mysteriously forgotten about). Make sure that any other details you provide, such as objects or dialogue, are not superfluous.
By the same token, don’t overdo it—everything can’t have significance when writing, so if you are too strict with enforcing the principle of Chekhov’s Gun then your story may lack context or excitement.