“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” – Anton Chekhov
In brief, Chekhov’s Gun is the idea of including only what is necessary to the story. If it’s not essential, cut it. The Chekhov’s Gun concept has often been labelled as poor advice. Critics argue that if every element in a story ends up having a purpose, the story will feel too contrived.
But this criticism is largely the result of misinterpretation. Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t actually mean every single little detail in your story has to serve some greater purpose. Rather, it argues every significant element (something which stands out to readers) in your story should have a crucial function.
Chekhov’s Gun is all about delivering on readers’ anticipation by the time the story comes to an end. If a writer introduces an element and then puts emphasis on this element, it gains significance in the reader’s mind – they will expect it to serve a purpose and have a deeper meaning. If the reader’s expectation is not met they’ll be left disappointed as their anticipation has gone unrewarded.
But what makes an element “significant” in the reader’s mind? The easiest way to ascertain this is by checking if the element is…
Introduced at the Start of Your Story
When we read, we are constantly searching for meaning and hunting for clues about which direction the story will take. We are especially attentive to things that occur at the beginning. We naturally assume these details are going to be the vital set-up to anything that ensues.
Described in Detail
This is pretty understandable – the more you focus on something, the more important it will seem. That’s why public speakers always use techniques like repetition!).
It Subverts Expectations
If you incorporate something which is unusual and/or unexpected, it will instantly stand out and grasp your reader’s attention over other details.
When crafting your story it’s important to go through your work and highlight any elements which could come across as significant to readers. Not only will this help you weed out the significant elements you’ve included unintentionally, but it can also give you ideas for what path your story could take. For example, if you discover that an element you initially thought of as unimportant is actually significant, it can inspire you to give a purpose to this element later in your story.
Chekhov’s Gun In Summary…
Chekhov’s Gun reminds us to be careful of the details we draw a reader’s attention to. It reminds us to be attentive to how readers will interpret our stories, and to rewardand not frustrate.
If a significant element appears in your story, but is never ‘fired’, it will only leave your readers questioning what was the point of including it.