Being a Better Writer: Chekhov’s Gun

Welcome back readers! Guess who had a real breakfast yesterday morning? If you guessed me, that’s correct. If you’re wondering why that’s significant, all I feel I need to do is point you at the title of my last post, the self-explanatory Flu.

Yup. The latter half of this last week was fun. And compared to that, being able to have real food is absolutely wonderful.

On another note, you know what else is wonderful? Seeing the first reviews and feedback start to trickle in for Shadow of an Empire. It’s official: Shadow of an Empire is an awesome, gripping read, and people love it! This also marks the first time I’ve ever had people contact me over Twitter to tell me how much they loved the book—right on! If you’ve not gotten started on Shadow of an Empire yet … well, what’s the hold up? Click that book cover on the right and get going! Knife-fights, horseback chases, shootouts, and more await!

Grabbed your copy? Good. Now that you’ve done that, we can move onto today’s topic: Chekhov’s Gun.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. Chekhov’s gun is one of the more universally known writing rules. Named not for Chekhov of Star Trek fame but rather for a book on writing advice by one Anton Chekhov, Chekhov’s Gun has become an almost universal law across fiction. It’s simple, easy to remember, and most of all, works. Writing a story? Keeping Chekhov’s Gun in mind will not only help you keep track of important narrative objects, but also trim out unneeded descriptive elements and clutter. Not bad for a straightforward, easy to remember quote.

Now, at this point those of you who can paraphrase the rule off-hand are probably already jumping ahead, but those of you who cannot, and are either new to the rule or inexperienced with it may be wondering exactly what it is or how pulls this off. So, as we start our discussion of Chekhov’s Gun, let’s revisit the rule itself. Like I said, it’s pretty simple, and easy to remember. You ready? Here goes:

If you’ve hung a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired in the next.

That’s it. Some paraphrasings of the original might make it a bit shorter, or a bit longer (I’ve seen it blown up into two sentences before), but at its core, that’s the rule. You’ve hung a gun on the wall in the first act? Well, in the second it needs to be fired. Pretty straightforward.

What makes it such an excellent rule is that the rule is, in a way, almost deceptively simple once you start unpacking it. At its most base the rule is “Show the audience something noteworthy? It’d better be important!” Sort of like a small-scale foreshadowing reminder. But if you start digging into it and carrying it out, well …

Look, let’s start simple, with the first bit of the rule: hung.

Actually, let’s start with something even further back from this. Not writing about guns? That’s fine. The rule is about how an object or element is treated, not what the object is. It can be Chekhov’s Sword, Chekhov’s Letter, Chekhov’s Macguffin, Chekhov’s Suspicious Bystander … or any number of other elements. You can go back to that rule and insert each one of them into it. So while the catch-all catchphrase is “Chekhov’s Gun,” you could really say “Chekhov’s Plot Element” and not be far off. One is just a bit more easy to remember and explain.

Got it? Right, then let’s jump back to that bit about “hung.” It’s a deliberate choice of a word, make no mistake. It’s not that there happens to be a “gun hanging on the wall.” The author of said scene wasn’t just throwing together some quick background description and wrote “Oh, and there’s this gun over the mantle.” Hung implies specific choice, just like one hangs a jacket or a picture. An act that usually takes either looking for the proper point (as with a jacket) or standing back and checking it against the rest of the wall (picture).

In other words, a Chekhov’s Gun is hung on the wall rather than simply placed because the act of hanging implies a very specific, careful choice by the author. Something that is hung on the wall draws the eye, draws the viewer’s attention, even if it is just to say “Hey, that looks nice/cool.” And that’s what you want your Chekhov’s Gun to do. It’s a type of foreshadowing.

Now there’s a catch here. Yes, you’re “hanging” it out for the reader to see. However, it’s up to you how much attention you want this focus to have. As long as you have some focus, enough that the reader can recall it later, you’ve done your job. But, like with many things, you can vary exactly how much focus you want to give it.

For example, you can give something an “off-hand” hanging in a way that gives it a little shot of detail in the reader’s mind. Say, an alien bar where the protagonist, upon walking in, looks over a good part of the layout and notes a few things, such as the primary countertop, the multi-armed bartender mixing drinks, and the large, multi-jawed skull of some alien predator with large, sharp teeth hanging above it. Then he goes about his activities. It sounds cool, it sticks in the reader’s memory, and gives the bar some unique ambiance. It’s an off-hand bit of cool detail.

However, if the author “hung” that skull there so that in the next chapter, when a pack of killers come looking for the protagonist, the alien bartender reaches up, plucks off the sharp-toothed jaws, and dives at them, the reader is going to go “Oh hey, I remember—whoa!” and the Chekhov’s gun (or in this case, jawbone) has been fired.

That’s a low-key one. If done with an air of subtlety, the reader will remember it as a fixture of the bar, but just as that, because it wasn’t obvious that it was a “gun” to be fired until it was.

But maybe you don’t want that. Maybe you want one that the reader knows is a gun that you’ve just loaded. Maybe we swap that skull for an actual gun that the protagonist identifies, or we have a belligerent customer bad-mouth the bartender as our protagonist is taking a look around, and they see the bartender start to reach for the skull before the patron backs down. Either way, we spend more time on the “gun,” building it up more inside the reader’s head, to the point where they want to see something come of it. So then, when something does come of it, the reader gets a payoff of “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this!” or “I knew that was important!” To which the author nods and thinks “Of course it was” because they’d written it to be eye-catching. The “gun” was hung properly.

This is, by the way, why this rule has become so famous. Because in the process of outlining a very simply concept (introduce something before you use it), it encourages a prospective writer to put a little thought into it. So, you “hang” something on the “wall” for the reader to see before it gets used. Which in turn gets that writer thinking “how do I hang this?”

Of course, sometimes this leads to very obvious “hangings” that are effectively shouted at the audience … but hey, the audience knows, at least. And for a new writer who otherwise may have forgotten to put that bit of foreshadowing in? That’s still a win.

So, we’ve talked about hanging Chekhov’s Gun. So what about the second half? What about firing the gun we’ve “loaded” and hung on the wall for our readers?

Well, here’s where I actually do disagree a bit with the original author of the rule. See, Chekhov, when writing the rule, did say something that I don’t find to be the best advice. Then again, looking at the context, it seems that of the multiple times Chekhov was referring to this rule, he was referring to short fiction, and in another, later letter he clarified his comments that it was more about leaving something unfulfilled and breaking promises to the audience than a measure of time, so perhaps he would have agreed with me.

In any case, let’s look at the second half of this rule. Okay, it’s a sentence long, so let’s look at the whole thing again, but with our focus on a key part if it that comes to fruition in the second half. Look at the timing. I’m going to add some emphasis here.

If you’ve hung a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired in the next.

The “next” bit is the part I don’t tend to agree with. Personally, I think this varies gun by gun. Sure, in the aforementioned bar example, we want an immediate payoff, but does it have to be?

No, and that’s the part where I disagree a little with the rule. Again, it was written talking of short fiction, hence why Chekhov’s comments in a later letter that when speaking of “guns” in plays the real problem was that they went unfired at all, not that the firing was at the wrong “time” likely means he’d agree. I’d like to think he would.

Point being, despite the common phrasing of the quote, you don’t have to fire a Chekhov’s Gun as soon as you’ve introduced it. You can let it bake for a while. Let it sit.

For example, with the bar skull, we could have the protagonist leave the bar and come back several times before the jawbones are used as weapons. While timing is important (you can’t have the audience forgetting about the gun), despite what the rule suggests, the actual firing of the gun doesn’t have to be almost immediately after its introduction.

Even when the readers know that we’ve given them a Chekhov’s Gun, the wait can still be used to great effect. Let me offer a concrete example straight from reality with the case of the PR6-BFG from Colony.

In Colony, the PR6-BFG (standing for “Plasma Repeater Model 6” and nicknamed by everyone who worked with it the “Big [This is a family-friendly blog but you can guess the word here] Gun”) is brought up fairly early on in the book as the main characters discover a listing for the weapon in a shipping manifest aboard the same vessel they are en route to Pisces. One of the characters, familiar through reputation with the weapon and deeply desiring to get her hands on one, gives the other two characters a run down of how it works and how spectacular, as well as rare, each one of them can be.

At this point, my Alpha readers started leaving comments noting that this was a definite Chekhov’s Gun. Several expected that said protagonist would be armed with one before long. All of them identified it for the gun it was.

Several chapters went by. The cast arrived on Pisces. Once again, the PR6-BFG was brought up. Expectations were that the gun was about to be fired, but … Nope. The cast was informed that it was an error. There was no PR6-BFG being delivered. Which, the one doing the informing declared, was a shame, because they’d wished for one.

Again comments lit up. Theories abounded. He was lying. Someone else was lying. The audience knew the gun was there. Some suggested someone else had it.

The book rolled on. The protagonists met another faction. Comments came in that maybe that faction had stolen it and they would use it. The PR6 was a Chekhov’s Gun, the audience knew it. And they were looking for it to be fired.

The story continued. Every so often there would be a comment that maybe this was the moment the PR6 would show up. Some even questioned whether it would, suggesting that maybe if it didn’t, the amount of attention given to it needed to be redirected.

Of course, shortly after that was the moment when it finally did show up. From an unexpected direction, no less. And then it was fired (in spectacular fashion, by the protagonist who’d first spoken of it). And the comments lit up with gleeful joy at seeing the gun fire at last, right when it really hit hard.

Thing is, that was in the last quarter of the book. And the PR6 had been introduced in the first third. This was not a Gun where, as the original rule suggests, it was fired in the very next chapter. But it still worked because you don’t need to fire a Chekhov’s Gun immediately in order for it to work. As long as the readers remember it and they do get to see it fired in a way befitting the wait, it can work.

That last bit there is key, however. The payoff has to be worth it. The longer you tease a Chekhov’s Gun, the cooler that payoff needs to be in order to live up to that time. The PR6 in Colony? Well, it paid off. Explosively. In so many ways. If it hadn’t, I’d have had a problem on my hands.

But again, despite the rule, you don’t need to resolve a Chekhov’s Gun immediately. As Chekhov himself pointed out, the bigger issue is leaving it “unfired.” Don’t do that! At least, not without a very clear eye for some sort of lampshading your own actions, which is very hard to do properly.

No, instead, if you’re going to introduce something important, fire it! Which brings us to another thing that this rule can do for the prospective writer. Earlier I mentioned how the first half of the rule can bring a young writer’s focus to on what they need to draw the audience’s eye to because it’s important? Well, the end of this rule can do the same in reverse. After the fact, after the story or scene has been written … was something given too much focus that made it appear to be a Chekhov’s Gun when it wasn’t? In that bar example, did we focus on a character that was supposed to be background flavor in a way that made them appear to be something more?

Sometimes if a reader suggests that they expected something to happen and it didn’t, that may be because we built up a background element or presented it in such a way that it appeared to be a clear Chekhov’s Gun and wasn’t. Go back and check to see what led the reader in that direction. Was something given too much focus? Was it a red-herring that went wrong?

Ultimately, I don’t feel there’s much more to say on this topic that wouldn’t start spilling into others. Chekhov’s Gun is a rule that’s worth talking about if only because it’s such a simple concept that at the same time instills a number of other good writing practices by virtue of association.

And crud, if you’ve never actually sat down and written out a short story with the goal of bringing in and using a Chekhov’s Gun before, it may be worth trying, just for the experience of working with it to get the degree of foreshadowing right.

But even if you don’t do that, Chekhov’s Gun is a rule that all writers should know, be familiar with, and most importantly, make use of.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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