Pretty much every writer out there has heard about Chekhov’s gun at some point or another in their writing career. The saying goes something like this:
‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a 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 short and tall of it?
Everything you give attention to in your story should serve a function. If you spend time on a secondary character, make sure they show up again later, and make sure they matter. If you focus on some detail, a place or object or event, make sure they matter.
Make sure you link these ‘things’ to something that’s happened or that’s about to happen. Or link it to your character, their GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). Or link it to their personal growth (character arc).
Link it to something, or don’t draw attention to it at all.
A great story is like a jigsaw puzzle – all the pieces interlink to form a whole. Each piece is necessary, each one dependent on the others to form a complete picture that makes sense. Every story element should serve a function. Whether that be to hint at past or present events, or to create mood or give depth to setting. And when you give more than fleeting attention to that story element, make sure you’re not setting your reader up for disappointment when it’s never mentioned again.
It’s all about cohesion. About arranging all those individual building blocks to construct a whole.
Interesting that if we look at Chekhov’s gun from another angle, we discover the art of foreshadowing. About making sure we give the reader sufficient notice of an object or event, even if it’s cleverly masked and leads to that wonderful aha moment when they put two and two together and come up with four.
So, where do we start?
Loaded guns can fall under one of several categories.
Before we move onto these categories, I’d like to point out that my examples contain one or more SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen the movie I’ve mentioned and don’t want it to be spoiled, just skip that example and move onto the next.
Now, for those categories . . .
This is the obvious Chekhov’s gun. In this instance, attention is drawn to a particular item that will later become significant in plot or story.
Examples: SPOILER ALERT!!!
Harry Potter, JK Rowling
In The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry receives a Christmas gift from an anonymous benefactor – an invisibility cloak. Several scenes later, he uses this to sneak into the restricted area of the library for research.
Imagine if Harry was given this cloak and that was the last we saw of it. Imagine how you, as the reader, would feel. I know disappointment would have been my initial reaction. I want to see that cloak again, and I want to see it in action.
And if we were never introduced to the cloak until the moment Harry used it to slip by Filch and break into the library, this would have raised alarm bells, flashing bright with neon lights – alarm bells such as contrived! and plot device!
What’s a plot device, you might ask? This is an object or character whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of a story.
Plot devices are useful – and even necessary – at times. But when these devices stick out like a cassowary in a chicken coop, all they do is throw the reader out of the story and make it difficult for them to slide back in.
Here’s another couple of great examples of a loaded gun that gains significance through using Chekhov’s loaded gun strategy.
The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King
When Andy Dufresne arrives at Shawshank prison in the beginning of the movie, the warden gifts him a bible with the inscription ‘Salvation lies within’. Later in the movie, there is a momentous scene where the warden realises that Andy has escaped and his own crimes have been exposed. In this moment, he discovers Andy’s hollowed out bible where he hid the infamous rock hammer he used to dig out. This bible brandishes the inscription ‘Dear Warden. You were right. Salvation lay within.’ The impact of this moment is far greater than it would have been without that smoking gun moment earlier.
The Usual Suspects, Christopher MacQuarrie – BIG SPOILER ALERT!!!
This movie is literally teeming with examples of Chekhov’s gun. The entire story is centred around cripple Verbal Kint’s interview with FBI agent Jack Baer. Verbal recounts events that occurred on a ship in San Pedro, California, where 27 men were killed and only two men survived – Verbal, and a Hungarian criminal who tells Baer from his hospital bed that Keyser Söze masterminded the whole thing.
So, Verbal weaves his tale, and only seconds after he leaves FBI headquarters, Baer’s gaze scans the interrogation room only to discover that details and names from Verbal’s story are words that appear on various objects around the room. Every bit of Verbal’s story comes from his surroundings – guns just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.
Sometimes events can be a significant loaded gun, a warning that this event will hold some importance or impact in later scenes. Of course, we’d not only label this as a loaded gun, but as foreshadowing as well.
Examples: MORE SPOILER ALERTS!!!!
There are some great examples of this in the movie world. If you haven’t seen the Star Wars movies or Back to the Future, I have to warn you that these examples reveal vital plot twists.
The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas
Halfway through this movie, Luke Skywalker goes to the planet Dagobah to receive training from Jedi master, Yoda. During his journey, he enters a cave where he has a vision of Darth Vader stalking toward him, lightsabre drawn. When Luke strikes Vader with his lightsabre, the dark lord’s mask falls away to reveal Luke’s face. What fabulous foreshadowing for the later scene where Darth Vader reveals he is Luke’s father. And of course, we see several occasions where Luke and Vader meet and battle, until that final moment when Vader saves Luke and dies, only after Luke removes his mask to look upon his face.
Sometimes what our characters say can constitute a loaded gun. This can be a hugely powerful tool, and of course, it falls under that wonderful banner of foreshadowing.
Example: YET MORE SPOILER ALERTS!!!
Fatal Attraction, James Dearden
Psycho-stalker Alex Forrest asks her married lover Dan Gallagher to come over, and when he tells her he has to walk the dog, she responds, “Just bring the dog over, I’m great with animals and I love to cook.” Later in the movie, we discover just how true this statement is when she both kills and boils his pet rabbit.
Why say this if it leads nowhere? The impact is far greater when her seemingly throwaway comment can be later linked to an act that is both horrific and terrifying. And of course, it helps to build Alex’s sadistic, cold and calculating character.
See how Chekhov’s gun can be more than placing an object in a room and using it later? It can be used to deepen characters and motivation and provide a whole new level of layering and nuance in your story.
There are times when we may need one or more characters to have a particular ability which will drive their arc or the plot forward, or save them from harm later in the story, or just help propel them closer to their final goal. In cases like this, it’s important to highlight this ability early on, so that when the need for this ability comes into play, it’s an aha moment for the reader, rather than a WTF moment J
Terminator, James Cameron
In Terminator I we receive the explanation that dogs can to spot cybernet infiltrators. In the second movie, when the disguised T-1000 turns up to John’s house, John’s dog goes wild. And that first, earlier mention, allows us to know why.
Back to the Future, Bob Gale
Early in the movie, in 1985, a skateboarding Marty hitches a ride behind a Jeep on his way to school. This is great way to highlight this ability, and when we see him grab the back of a pickup truck in 1955 to escape from Biff’s gang, it seems like a perfectly natural action for him to take.
Harry Potter, JK Rowling
In The Philosopher’s Stone Harry discovers he’s able to communicate with a snake while at the zoo with the Dursleys. Of course, this ability – being a Parselmouth – forms a pivotal part of his uniqueness when it comes to his powers, and its use comes into play soon after, in The Chamber of Secrets.
This loaded gun moment plays a huge part in building a three dimensional character. Whether it be a fear or power, weakness or strength, when we see this highlighted early in a story, it had better play a large role later on otherwise we’ll be mightily disappointed.
Indiana Jones, George Lucas
Anyone who has watched any one of the Indiana Jones movies knows that Indiana is petrified of snakes. We discover this quite early on in the first movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but by the end of the movie, and indeed the series, not only has he faced this fear and overcome it to save the day, but we discover where his fear stems from in the first place.
Story setting is often considered as an additional character by some writers. This is particularly important for genres set in worlds we are not currently familiar with, eg, sci-fi, fantasy, historical, etc. In these cases, the setting should be well developed and constructed with all those layers and nuances we apply to our characters.
If attention is drawn to a particular facet of this setting, make sure this facet doesn’t disappear, never to feature again in the story. By paying attention to this ‘facet’, you are giving it an importance that must be realized by the end or your story, whether it be in this particular book, or later in the series.
Harry Potter, JK Rowling
There are so many facets of world building in Harry Potter that conform to Chekhov’s loaded gun. In fact, Hogwarts is more than a gun. It’s a ten tonne canon.
From the ghostly figures who roam the halls and later become pivotal to the plot, to the moving staircases and endless number of doors leading to weird and wonderful rooms. Rooms housing objects such as the Mirror of Erised, which according to Dumbledore, shows the “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” When reflected in the mirror, the name “Erised” is shown to be “desire” spelled backwards. Even the name is a loaded gun in itself J
This becomes apparent in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, where it is hidden in the mirror and only someone who desires to find the stone but not use it can extract it from its place.
Even the atmosphere of mystery and secrecy falls under this writing tool. Dumbledore is great at suggesting at secrets, by telling part-stories and leaving the rest for Harry’s – and the reader’s – imagination.
A great example is this quote from The Goblet of Fire: “I took a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and found myself in a beautifully proportioned room I had never seen before, containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamberpots. When I went back to investigate more closely, I discovered that the room had vanished. But I must keep an eye out for it. Possibly it is only accessible at five thirty in the morning. Or it may only appear at the quarter moon – or when the seeker has an exceptionally full bladder.”
Ahh, the Room of Requirement. A room that only appears when a person is in great need of it.
See how valuable Chekhov’s gun becomes within the process of world building?
If, when writing your novel, you mention a location more than once, drawing particular attention to it, make sure that location features later in your story.
On the flip-side, if you have a location that is important to character, plot or romantic development, make sure you’ve mentioned it at least once, if not more, before that location hits the page.
There is always a need for secondary characters in our stories. If not for these periphery individuals, the stars of our story would seem to exist in a bubble.
When introducing these secondary characters to your readers, bear in mind that the level of detail you impart on each of these characters should be directly proportional to the importance they play in the story. If the character plays a fleeting role, eg, a waiter or postman or shop assistant, make sure not to name them or wax lyrical about their appearance or behaviour.
However, if these characters will later serve a function in your story, whether that be plot-based or character-arc based or something entirely different, make sure you give the reader enough of an insight into them to recognise them later, and believe that they are a) not just some plot device you’ve dropped in when you needed it, and b) they are just as 3-dimensional as your main characters. You want these characters to feel real to the reader – a real help, a real hindrance, a real threat – so that when they reappear on the page, the reader has an aha moment, followed by a wow, that makes absolute sense.
Harry Potter, JK Rowling
One of my all-time favourite secondary characters across all novels and movies is Moaning Myrtle. At first notice this character and her mindless ramblings appear to provide light entertainment and not much else.
But if we consider Chekhov’s rule, this shouldn’t be the case. Myrtle should provide more than a diversion from the main plot. She should add to it, and even better, enrich it. Something she does hundredfold.
Not only is this fabulous character both quirky and entertaining, she’s exceedingly helpful, and many of her ‘mindless ramblings’ could be considered a loaded gun – a forewarning of action and events to come.
For example, in The Chamber of Secrets, she mentions “seeing a pair of big yellow eyes” just before dying. Not only does this eventually alert Harry and his friends to the possible existence of a basilisk living in the Chamber of Secrets. And of course, it soon became apparent that Ginny might just suffer the same fate if they don’t reach the chamber in time to save her.
Also, Myrtle’s love for interrupting students taking baths is shown early on, and this then makes it possible for her to witness Cedric’s bath time the moment he solves the mystery of the golden egg – the solution which she manages to pass onto Harry, assisting him in this portion of the Triwizard Tournament.
There’s of course another great example of this in HP. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Hagrid mentions that he borrowed his flying motorbike from Sirius Black. This is not merely some random character, as we soon discover in The Prisoner of Azkaban. JK Rowling could have mentioned anyone here, and never mentioned them again in the series. Instead, she used Chekhov’s gun and chose to first introduce the idea of Sirius before introducing him on the page two books later.
Bear this in mind when writing secondary characters into your story. Can one character perform several roles? Can you suggest their existence earlier on so that when they enter on the page, they’ve already reached a level of credibility to the reader?
As far as world building goes, this is a great tool for lending credence to your characters. Make them believable by making them an intrinsic part of your story.
- RED HERRINGS – LOTS OF SPOILERS!!!
There are times we can use a loaded gun as a red herring to throw the reader, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t gel with the story or plot in some way. A red herring that comes from left field shouts ‘red herring’ in high decibel surround sound. Shroud your red herring with the illusion of belonging, and it will much better serve its purpose and confound the reader J
Harry Potter, JK Rowling – SPOILER ALERT!!!
JK Rowling is the master at loaded guns. And as for red herrings? Well, she’s pretty spectacular at those too.
We see a great example in The Philosopher’s Stone during Harry’s first Quidditch match. Harry’s broom becomes possessed, nearly toppling him off. Of course, his friends have his back, and when Hermoine sees Snape focused on Harry, mouthing words of what she believes is a spell, she jumps into action. After all, by now, we’re well versed in Snape’s aversion to Harry.
A great red herring, one that fooled all of us until the moment we discover who’s not only been chasing the stone, but who’s been hiding Voldemort all this time – Quirrel.
And there you have it. Chekhov’s gun – a writing device that when used effectively, prepares your reader for delights to come, foreshadowing events and occurrences that will give your story and storytelling a huge WOW factor.
Thanks to all you lovely peeps out there, who’ve read and commented on my previous posts – either directly on the blog post or on the social media mentions.
Now for appreciation time! As a thank you for reading and supporting this post, I’d like to offer one lucky commenter a critique of three hundred words of their current work in progress, with particular emphasis on Chekhov’s gun and/or foreshadowing.
To enter the draw, comment below and share what particular point or points in this post resonated with you. What’s your favourite movie or book example of Chekhov’s gun? Or, better still, give us all insight into how you incorporate Chekhov’s gun into your stories.
A name will be drawn a week from today, on Friday 18th May, by 5pm DST and winners will be notified on the blog, so keep your eyes and ears peeled 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by.
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