Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, is famous for many things. His plays are still performed all over the world, his short stories are studied in schools, and he is even responsible for a plot device that has been adopted by writers everywhere.
That device is known as "Chekhov's gun," and it is a simple but effective way to add tension to a story. Here's everything you need to know about Chekhov's gun and how to use it in your own storytelling.
What is Chekhov's Gun?
One of the most widely used plot devices in literary history, Chekhov's Gun can be seen in works across all genres.
Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle that suggests if you introduce an element in the beginning of a story (such as a character or an object), that element should be relevant later on. Everything should have narrative significance.
Where did Chekhov's Gun come from?
The Chekhov's Gun principle is named after Anton Chekhov, who would often give this advice to many other playwriters:
"If in the first act you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there."
In other words, Chekhov believed that every element in a story should have a purpose. If you are going to add something interesting in your story, it needs to have signficance if not in that scene it's introduced, but later on in the story. No false promises.
How to Use Chekhov's Gun
There are two ways to use Chekhov's gun in a story:
The first way is to introduce an element early on without revealing its purpose. For example, you could introduce a character in the second or third chapter who seems unimportant at first but turns out to be vital to the plot later on.
The second way is to intentionally foreshadow something that will happen later on in the story. For example, you could describe a character handling a gun carelessly in the first chapter, hinting at the accident that will happen later on.
Why Does Chekhov's Gun work?
Chekhov's gun works because it creates tension and suspense. When you introduce an element without revealing its purpose, the audience will start wondering why it's there and what will happen with it. This creates a sense of anticipation that keeps the audience hooked to the story.
Similarly, foreshadowing something that will happen later on also builds tension. Readers will be waiting for the event to occur, and this can make them even more invested in the story.
Is Chekhov's Gun foreshadowing?
Chekhov's gun is a type of foreshadowing, but it is not the only type. Foreshadowing generally refers to any hint or sign that something will happen in the future. Chekhov's gun specifically refers to the use of an element in the beginning of a story that seems irrelevant but becomes incredibly significant later on.
The difference between Chekhov's Gun and a red herring
A red herring is a false clue or piece of evidence that leads the characters (and readers) astray. Red herrings are often used in mystery stories to mislead the detective and add an element of suspense.
Chekhov's gun is not a red herring because it is not intended to mislead anyone. It is simply an element that is introduced early on and becomes significant later on.
Examples of Chekhov's Gun used in stories
Chekhov's gun can be used in any type of story, whether it's a novel, a short story, or even a play. Here are a few examples:
The Shawshank Redemption
Chekhov's Gun is used in the Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne hides the rock hammer in the Bible.
We as the audience think the rock hammer is only used by Andy for his rock carving hobby. But this tool becomes incredibly important later on when Andy uses it to escape from Shawshank prison.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The Harry Potter series is full of uses of Chekhov's Gun.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the use of Chekhov's gun is in the form of the Mirror of Erised. This object is introduced halfway through the story but just as a characterization moment for Harry as he yearns for his dead parents.
The Mirror of Erised appears surprisingly again at the climax of the story and is the object used to acquire the Sorcerer's Stone.
Shaun of the Dead
A literal use of Chekhov's Gun. In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun and his friend Ed discuss a rifle hanging above the bar at the pub they are drinking at and speculate if it is a actually loaded rifle.
This seemed like an irrelevant point of their conversation, but in the last act of the film during the climax where Shaun and his friends fight zombies in the pub, they find out the rifle on the wall is indeed loaded when they use it against the zombie horde.
The literary device of Chekhov's Gun is a simple but effective way to add tension and intrigue to a story. By introducing elements early on and making them relevant later on, you can keep readers engaged from beginning to end. So next time you're planning a story, think about how you can use Chekhov's gun to your advantage.