Chekhov’s Gun is a Double-Edged Sword
I hope you like mixed metaphors, because we have a doozy for you today, revolving around Anton Chekhov and his metaphoric gun. I’ve been thinking a lot about Chekhov’s gun lately and how it’s both the cause of and solution to a lot of writerly problems. So much so I think this will turn into a three-part series on the subject. So, with that in mind, I guess we should discuss who exactly Chekhov was and why he’s so fixated on firearms.
Despite my rather cliched dive into Russian literature during my college days, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any Chekhov. However, even excluding his infamous gun, I’ve read references to him for years, and a little internet research tells me he was a doctor who wrote in his spare time, “medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” He wrote short stories, with fans such as Raymond Carver, as well as plays, which were better received after his death.
Interestingly enough, it seems his most famous contribution, his metaphoric gun, only existed in correspondence:
"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the 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."
"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.”
In essence, Chekhov seems to be stating the obvious in that you cannot have a major object/ character that has great influence late into the plot without introducing it early on. This is basic continuity to a certain degree, but is not as obvious as it initially seems. The whole deus ex machina insult we throw around is in direct opposition to Chekhov’s gun, yet sprang from a very popular type of play where God would literally descend upon the stage to alter the plot through divine intervention.
While Chekhov’s gun may appear like foreshadowing, it’s actually much more practically based in that he believed in stripping down the story/ play to its most basic elements so that any details that did not serve the plot were eliminated. As such, each and every detail offered to the audience had some significance and therefore HAD to be used by its sheer inclusion.
This fixation on economy and efficiency makes sense when you consider Chekhov’s mediums of plays and short fiction: When you only have a limited number of words to get your point across, every word must count. This is why Chekhov’s gun is so sacrosanct among screenwriters, who have 110 pages to tell an entire story from start to finish. With an emphasis on word economy, we must eliminate any extraneous detail with extreme prejudice.
As such, we make it a point to ensure all our plot points, characters, and important objects are properly seeded previously in the plot so they will not upset the audience in the finale. To do so we spend quite a bit of time on the introductions themselves (which I’ve focused before in terms of character) to draw the audience’s attention to the object in question so they will not feel cheated later.
However, no matter how much we like to bitch about audiences enjoying the lowest common denominator, they are quite savvy when it comes these introductions, and a heavy-handed introduction to one of Chekhov’s guns is a surefire way to telegraph a later plot point.
As such, authors, especially in the mystery genre, began introducing red herrings. While I strongly suggest checking out the etymology of this idiom because it’s entertaining as all hell, the term basically refers to a false clue to lead the audience to the wrong conclusion as to the author’s intent. In mysteries, where the red herring is most often used, this comes in the form of additional suspects or potential murder weapons that will lead the case in the wrong direction while still allowing the protagonists to uncover clues.
Like Chekhov’s gun, the red herring is a great tool that every author should keep in the metaphoric toolbox. But it should be noted that audiences are just as savvy about picking out red herrings as they are noting Chekhov’s gun, and while they may not know exactly how the gun of herring in question fits into the story, they certainly can recognize its significance.
Take old Scooby Doo episodes by way of example. They were totally cliché and followed their own formula that even children could predict. The villain under the rubber mask always needed to be familiar to the audience, thus introduced in opening when the gang learns about the weekly mystery de jour, but since the sense of mystery needed to be maintained, the villain could not be one of the initial suspects. After watching just a few of these shows, even kids note the pattern and can predict the villain by pointing out the one named character that the gang does NOT suspect or pursue over the course of the episode.
I know it's not Scooby Doo, but the gif was too weird to not use.
Which leads us to the double-edged sword nature of Chekhov’s gun: It needs to be used for continuity, to ensure the story makes logical sense, and does not contain any superfluous information that does not serve the story, but at the same time makes the ending more predictable for the audience since the significance of each gun is all the more recognizable by its inclusion. And while the red herring is a great tool to combat this, it sort of goes against the idea of Chekhov’s gun in that it adds details to the story rather than just fixating on the bear minimum. Red herrings are literally the “false promise” made to the audience that Chekhov railed against, after all.
However, red herrings are not the only way to overcome the double-edged nature of Chekhov’s gun, which we’ll discuss next time. When we do, there’s a good chance I’ll bring up the criminally underrated film The Prestige, which I’ve written about before as well as just recently too part in a podcast on over at Dragon Reel. So I’d suggest checking out the film now if you’re not already familiar with it.