By Anne A. Wilson
First of all, it’s not an actual gun. It’s a plot device, so named because of Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and author, who gave this guidance to other writers:
“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.” —From S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911)
Other variations include:
“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” (quoted by Rayfield)1
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” —Letter to A. S. Lazarev-Gruzinsky, Nov. 1, 1889
What do these statements have in common besides firearms? They describe Chekhov’s admonition that when you introduce an item—a detail, a circumstance, a character—early in your novel, it should have relevance later. Basically, he’s talking about writing efficiency—including only those elements in your story that will contribute to the whole.
He could have used any object to make his point, but a gun, no matter where you find it—on a stage or hanging on a wall—gets your immediate attention.
For examples of Chekhov’s Gun, look no further than J. K. Rowling. She gives a clinic in the Harry Potter series. From magic trading cards to mirrors to the wood source for wands, details garnering no more than a casual first mention, surface again and again, sometimes in the same book, sometimes five books later, each revealed to be substantially more significant than originally thought. It was subtle and masterful.
This is not to say that whatever you describe in your book has to be used later. If you’re too rigid, then the reader will already know that what you’re introducing is important and the novel might become too predictable. So be judicious.
On the other hand, sometimes unimportant details are introduced for the specific purpose of throwing a reader off track—the classic red herring. But even red herrings contribute to the whole, to writing a great mystery, for example.
Having said this, be careful about describing something in too much detail, making it seem important, but then never mentioning it again. You, as a reader, know how that feels. It’s frustrating and can be a big turn-off.
For many authors, the use of Chekhov’s Gun is planned. For others, it happens by “accident,” intuitively. Often, authors insert details after the manuscript is complete, when they’re editing, and looking for ways to tighten their plots.
So keep Chekhov’s advice in mind as you write and edit. Be judicious and subtle. But most of all, have fun. This is a great tool to have in your writer’s tool belt.
1.Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. 203.
Anne A. Wilson – Anne was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, never imagining she would one day be a writer. She graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in ocean engineering, before serving nine years as an active duty navy helicopter pilot.
Anne owns a triathlon coaching company, Camelback Coaching, so when she’s not writing, you’ll find her on a pool deck teaching adults to swim. She lives in Fountain Hills, Arizona, with her husband and two children.