Being a Better Writer: Chekhov’s Armory

Welcome back readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer! This week, I’m picking up right where I left off from last week’s discussion on Chekhov’s Guns, and moving on to another type of … Well, I guess we could call it a foreshadowing tool? Preparatory Plot Device set-up? Honestly, I’m not certain there’s an official name for this kind of thing past “Chekhov’s Armory,” but foreshadowing tool does work, though in the short term.

But that’s me getting distracted by terms, which few of us are here for. We’re here for Chekhov’s Armory, which I’m going to point out right now, Anton Chekhov did not invent. Rather, it’s simply the name that has become attached to the concept given its growth out of Chekhov’s Gun.

But again, getting sidetracked. So let’s dive right in. What is Chekhov’s Armory?

Well, to answer that question, I’m actually going to show you a youtube video. Hopefully you’re at a location where you can watch it, because this is one of those cases where showing you what something is and then talking about it will be far more effective than simply trying to explain it first. The video in question? The famous “Flying Wing Fight” from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you haven’t seen this film, rectify this ASAPRaiders is one of the most famous films in cinema, and it’s not hard to see why once you’ve seen it.

It also happens to be chock full of Chekhov’s Armory scenes. Honestly, I could link you just about any of the fights in the movie, and each one of them would be a great representation of a Chekhov’s Armory set-up, but the Flying Wing Fight happens to be one of my favorites, and crystal clear in its execution of this tool, so that’s the one we’re going to use.

So, go ahead and enjoy the next five minutes as you watch one of the best fights in cinema, and then we’ll talk about it. Ready? Go!

 

Okay, I hope you enjoyed that fight as much as I always have. But now that you’ve seen it, we can talk about how it uses Chekhov’s Armory to full effect—and really, what Chekhov’s Armory is.

So, remember last week, with Chekhov’s Gun, and that whole idea that if you hang a “gun” on the wall in the first act, you need to fire it in the next? Well, Chekhov’s Armory is a similar rule, but instead of hanging one gun, or maybe two, you’re hanging maybe a dozen. Which is where the “Armory” part of the title comes in. An armory, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a repository of weapons stored and ready to be used. So when you establish a Chekhov’s Armory, what it means is that you create an establishing scene or event where you hang not one, not two, but several—maybe even a dozen or more—Guns on a wall so that later you can fire them off one after another in a rapid explosion of climactic action.

Going back to our example with the Flying Wing fight, if you move that video to the first half a minute and watch closely, it gives the audience everything that the fight uses. Specifically at the 24-second mark, if you pause the shot, you get an establishing shot that shows you each and every item the fight is about to use: The plane, the fuel truck, the shack the big miniboss comes out of, the plane … it even pans down to the fuel barrels that will later blow up as Indy and Marion run for it. Everything the fight is going to use over the next four-and-a-half minutes is shown to the audience in this one establishing shot. A whole establishing moment of Chekhov’s Guns. Then, as the fight progresses, each one of them is picked up and used, one by one, and often in clever ways.

See, the point of this establishing shot is to give the audience familiarity with all these Chekhov’s Guns before the scene starts. It establishes them in the audiences mind, even if they have no idea that each of them serves a purpose, and gives them a familiarity with each element in the scene. That way, when they come up later in the scene, it’s not something new, but rather something that the viewer already had in mind, even if just in a sort of “short-term memory” sort of way. They see the Flying Wing parked, for example, and their mind says “parked, cool looking plane.” Then later in the scene, Marion grabs the chocks behind one wheel and uses them to clock the pilot. The audience doesn’t suddenly ask “Hey, where’d she get the chocks?” because they both saw her pick them up, yes, but also because their brain immediately says “parked plane, chocks were there, that makes sense.” Then, when the pilot falls forward and shoves the throttle up, revving up the props and sending the plane into a spin, again the audience’s mind goes “okay, we had the plane, and she took the chocks, this makes sense!”

Likewise with the fuel truck. Can you imagine what this scene would be like without that fuel truck being shown at the very start? You’d reach the bit where the moving Flying Wing’s wing scrapes the gash that lets all the fuel out, and the only thing on half the audience’s mind would be “Where’d the truck come from?” Which in turn would mean that they’d be thinking about that rather than the effect the filmmakers wanted them to think about, which is the fuel spilling out of the side of the truck and rushing across the ground.

But instead, the fuel truck has been a part of the scene from the very beginning, a “gun” that the audience has seen, and therefore has in their minds already, even if it’s just a part of their brain holding the “scene.” Then, when it comes up in the fight, their mind pulls from that scene and says “Oh, cool! The truck is part of this now!” rather than wondering where said truck came from.

But why go through all this trouble? Why not simply introduce things as they come? Well … because audiences don’t like that. When you set up a Chekhov’s Armory, you’re grounding the whole scene, and all the tools (guns) you’re about to use in it, in the audience’s mind. Like I said, it gives them familiarity with the scene and setting. Plus, it makes them feel smart, like they’re a part of the action. Which is why you’ll hear things after a movie or book that successfully uses a Chekhov’s Armory like “I knew they were going to use that thing in that scene! The moment it came up I thought it was important!”

Now, did they really? Well … If I’m honest, probably not. At least, not for most of them. Some of them may have guessed that it might be important, but these comments are a bit like an old post I wrote (before this site, even) talking about the types of readers, and the ones that make at least fifty prediction per chapter so that they can claim they “knew it all along” when prediction #394 comes out to be the right one in the end.

But does that really matter? No. What matters is that the audience felt invested because they were given the scene and had it in their mind already. So when one of the many Guns “fires,” they feel like they had a part in it because they remembered it being there. They get a thrill out of “Oh, look how so-and-so is using that!”

Want a real-life example of this in both forms? Look no further than the first two Pirates of the Carribean films, and the examples they gave. The first film has many of these Armories built through it, such as the blacksmith fight (which, sadly, is not on Youtube in the scene’s entirety). The blacksmith fight is fondly remembered by many, being the scene where two protagonists, the roguish Jack Sparrow and wanna-be hero Will Turner, go head-to-head for the first time in a swashbuckling swordfight. But if you pull up the DVD and watch that whole sequence again, one thing you might not remember is how carefully the minute-and-a-half or so leading up to that fight establish the Chekhov’s Armory that is to come. The shots are very careful to establish every single item that becomes part of the fight later: The swords, the donkey, the cart in the corner, the blacksmithing tools, the drunken blacksmith … Sands, they even pull a really clever one with the branding iron and the donkey being used first to break Sparrow’s chains, thereby setting up a surprising Chekhov’s Gun for later in the fight when someone grabs the branding iron to fight and the donkey takes off in fear, setting all the gears and whatnot across the shop in motion.

Now,  compare this kind of careful setup to the second film. Now, granted, I only saw that one once, but one thing that really stood out to me when I saw it was that it lacked the same attention to careful set up that the first had brought with it. Rather than setting up the armory carefully, the second film just dove into “action!” and had elements cropping up without any real introduction. Honestly, I think this is one of the reasons why so many weren’t as satisfied with the second movie after seeing the first: Its fights lacked the grounding brought about by careful set-up of the armory. Instead, they were just “Oh look, now this thing happened!” without any real build-up or preparation. And since a good part of the fun of the first film (as well as a lot of other stories, film or not, that use Chekhov’s Armory) came from the enjoyment of “Oh, look how that gun got fired” (more on that in a bit) having that gone, or at least mostly missing, from the second film took away that enjoyment.

Okay, so Chekhov’s Armory is a valuable tool for audience enjoyment. But the real question, as usual for these posts, is how do you use it? If this thing is in your writer’s toolbox, how do you pull it out and put it to good use in your stories?

Well, let me get back to that promised “more on that in a bit” from a few paragraphs ago, as well as talk about an example. For starters, a Chekhov’s Armory isn’t always the tool you want to use. Sometimes a singular gun can work just as well. It kind of depends on the story you’re telling, A thoughtful drama story, for example, can play well with one Chekhov’s Gun to bring weight to a scene. Dozens of them in rapid-fire, however, will distract from the drama and the characters. A Chekhov’s Armory is something that is constantly in motion, often escalating (though not always). If you’re writing an action-adventure story, a Chekhov’s Armory can be perfect for an action sequence, then, because it works to enhance that action with all kinds of rapidly-evolving “twists” hitting a scene one after another.

If you’re not sure what I meant by that, watch the Flying Wing Fight again and look at how each new Gun being fired from the Armory adds to the chaos of what’s going on. The escalation almost never takes a break, and each new gun interacts with some of the prior ones to take things in a new direction.

This plays into “that bit” I’d promised I’d talk about. Often half the fun of a Chekhov’s Gun in an Armory scene is that we don’t quite see how they’re going to be fired at the get go, and usually when they are fired, it’s not in the way the audience expects. Or the gun the audience expects. For example, the cart in the blacksmithing fight. Sure, the moment a character jumped onto it, dueling atop it was something to be expected. But what wasn’t expected was for the combatants to turn it into an impromptu springboard to launch both of them into the rafters! It was a clever firing of the Gun that the audience didn’t see coming, yet worked perfectly as it wasn’t impossible. It was just a use of the Gun that was clever and surprising.

The “that bit” part is being clever with your Armory going off. Half the fun of a Chekhov’s Armory is seeing it go off, but the other half is often seeing it go off in a way that no one expected. Or seeing a Gun go off twice with different results (for example, the bar fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark uses a flaming, racing trail of alcohol on at least three different occasions, IIRC, with vastly different goals and endings each time). Clever use of a Gun in the Armory keeps the audience on its toes and delights them with surprise. Sometimes the surprise is in what the Gun is, such as the chocks in the Flying Wing Fight, other times it is in how the Gun is fired, such as the cart in Pirates being a springboard.

Does this put a bit of a heavy onus on you? Yeah, it does. It can be hard to be clever all the time, but if you want to use a Chekhov’s Armory well, clever you’ll need to be. Not only to fire the Guns properly, but also to introduce them.

Speaking of which, we should probably talk about that. It’s very telling that one of the first Google results I got when searching “Chekhov’s Armory” (I needed to check the spelling of Chekhov’s name) was for an article pointing out how much they disliked the heavy-handed obviousness of a Chekhov’s Armory setup. I also wouldn’t disagree with them, either, because yeah, setting up an Armory without tipping your hand to the reader is not easy, largely because we’re either telling or showing our audience each scene. Handled poorly, the guns we’re attempting to hang can be very obvious to the reader, or even worse, predictable and dull.

This doesn’t make it impossible, however. Just tricky. The key is in that establishing scene: The descriptions, what our viewpoint notices, what they take in. Misdirection in such a setup can be key, having our viewpoint focus on one thing while casually mentioning another. The first time I wrote about Chekhov’s Armory, for example, I actually wrote up an entire 4000-word bar-fight sequence to demonstrate how one could carefully set up each of the Guns of the coming fight while keeping some of them obscured through misdirection and firing others off in unexpected ways. A few were even red herrings—a topic that we’ll be discussing next week.

Now, I’m not going to do that this time. Instead, I’m going to challenge you to make your own version of it. The best way to learn how to set up a Chekhov’s Armory, present it to the reader without them picking up on everything, and then fire the Guns off, some in expected ways, others not, is to practice. Make a small action scene that opens by building the armory and then fires most of it off.

As you do, though, don’t forget what makes a Chekhov’s Armory, and what the objective in using one is. This is a tool that escalates scenes. That draws the audience in by letting them have the “Guns” in their mind so that they’re ready when they’re fired. They’re invested because of how the Armory is both presented and used.

But even if that sounds difficult—and is!—to pull off in writing, it’s still worth it, and Chekhov’s Armory should be a tool you work with from your toolbox. Being able to present and fire off an Armory in an action story is an invaluable tool for writing gripping action scenes that keep your audience turning pages and enjoying your book. Again, as I said, it’s not for every kind of story, but for the kind of story that can use it?

Well, ask yourself if your book could benefit from a fight as gripping, memorable, or well-executed as the Flying Wing Fight, and you tell me. So practice, and add this tool to your writer’s toolbox.

It’s not one you want to miss out on.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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