What is Chekhov’s Gun in literature? Before we can answer this question, let’s first consider what Chekhov’s Gun is.
Chekhov’s Gun is a writing principle that was coined by Anton P. Chekhov. In his own words, it says:
“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.” Chekhov, in a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev.
In essence, it refers to the removal of all unnecessary elements in a story. In the specific example above, Chekhov wrote that in critique of a certain dialogue he felt did not belong in the specific play he was discussing in the letter. But, the meaning – and use – of the principle has many different variations, not just in the sense of removing unnecessary elements from a story, but adding elements that are necessary to the story the right way, as well as making use of the unnecessary elements by making them necessary.
For that reason, today, if we take a look at different creative works, from literary novels to genre novels, as well as comic books, manga, films and television shows, we can differentiate several types of Chekhov’s Guns, as well as the different ways in which these are used.
1. Types of Chekhov’s Guns
At this point, if you are reading a book and a gun is mentioned in the glove compartment, you know (you expect) that gun to be used in some way by the end of the novel. The literal interpretation of Chekhov’s principle has become an iron clad rule that nearly all creative authors follow.
But, there are other types of Chekhov’s Guns: objects, animals, characters, as well as situations and even dialogue. Like the guns, these different types of Chekhov’s guns get introduced in the novel, almost innocuously, and later on, when they go “off”, they have a huge impact on the story.
Some examples of these, across all genres, include:
- An artefact that gets innocently introduced in the first half of the novel becomes the key to the doomsday device the protagonist is trying to stop;
- A tool that the protagonist innocently picks up over the course of the novel becomes just the tool he needs during the climax;
- An old car that barely runs gives up the ghost by the end of the novel;
- A normal-looking animal reveals a hidden magical capability or transformation;
- A pet, if present in the story, gets endangered or otherwise interrupts the protagonist at important moments;
- Characters that are mentioned by name at the beginning of the novel are either dead or make an appearance later on, and often, the ones thought to be dead are not really dead;
- A person telling the protagonist where they are going means they will not make it there; or, something happens at the place where they said they went.
There are many more examples of Chekhov’s Guns, because in a good novel, nearly everything gets neatly tied up, and nearly of the Chekhov’s guns introduced in the story get to go off and fulfil the potential promise of their inclusion.
2. Using Chekhov’s Guns in your writing
Generally, Chekhov’s Guns are innocuously introduced and then their importance is revealed later on. We can call these subtle Chekhov’s Guns. Additionally, there are Chekhov’s Guns that are present throughout the story, and we know they will go off, we just don’t know how and when they will go off. We can call these direct Chekhov’s Guns.
With the subtle Chekhov’s Guns, you need to generally introduce them early enough, timeline wise, so that by the time they go off, the reader has nearly forgotten about them. So, if a “Gun” is meant to fire at the end of the second act to kick-start the third (for example), it needs to be introduced no later than the beginning of the second act. Depending on when they are meant to be used, you can introduce Chekhov’s Guns from the beginning until the middle of the novel, the midpoint of the second act, but no later than that.
The direct Chekhov’s Guns are, as previously mentioned, obvious and direct, and we know they will go off – like the titular gun, if introduced, it will go off, we just don’t know whom it will kill or injure. You can introduce these and have them pay off more quickly in the story, especially if their use is justified through cause and effect. Like the gun present under the dashboard of the car, it can go off at the end of the novel, but it can also go off in the beginning – for example: Let’s say that the car is driven by a lady on a test drive. During the test drive, the car dealer gets the gun and threatens her with it. They struggle, and in the struggle, the gun goes off, killing the car dealer – and all of this in the first act of this potential story.
Different types of stories, however, allow for different uses of Chekhov’s Guns.
3. Red Herrings
Red herrings are worth mentioning as the antithesis of Chekhov’s Guns. They take the same form of objects, animals, people, places, situations, and even pieces of dialogue, with the sole difference that these do not go off or have an impact on the story.
A great example of using red herrings usually occurs in mystery novels, especially whodunit, as the author will introduce multiple suspects at the beginning of the investigation. One of the suspects will look the most like the culprit – the right motivation and lack of a solid alibi, but by the end of the novel, this person is not guilty after all.
Even Chekhov himself created a red herring in his play The Cherry Orchard, where two loaded firearms are introduced, but do not go off – the central theme of the play is inactivity and inaction, however, so the use of the red herring fits the theme, and it is not inconsequential.
Earlier, we mentioned that in a good novel, nearly all of the Chekhov’s Guns will have fired – except for the red herrings, essentially, the Chekhov’s Guns that did not fire. The use of red herrings to distract from the real Chekhov’s Guns – especially the subtle ones – is a good strategy. However, these need to be used sparingly in novels, and in shorter works like short story, they should be used even less, if at all.
The use of red herrings adds a touch of chaos to the story – since in a story, everything is meant to be meaningful, both directly and indirectly. But real life is chaos, and having a dash of chaos in a story via one or a few red herrings adds colour to the story and helps you to avoid making your story too predictable, regardless of whether you are using subtle or direct Chekhov’s Guns. At this point, readers know to pay attention while reading, and many of them will enjoy the inclusion of red herrings, up to a point. If your novel contains more red herrings than Chekhov’s Guns, then your story will appear incomplete or incohesive.
4. Using Chekhov’s Guns in short stories
The number of Chekhov’s Guns a short story can handle is not very high. There are always a few direct Chekhov’s Guns and some subtle ones as well, but the actual number depends on the length of the story. A short flash fiction story of a thousand words or less could not handle more than one or two of both types.
On the other hand, a short story of 10,000 words can handle more than several, of both types. Depending on the structure however, the same rule applies here. If you are going to introduce a subtle Chekhov’s Gun, then you need to do it earlier rather than later in the story, and you need to do it in a way that will draw attention away from it. With the direct Chekhov’s Gun, especially objects like weapons, such subtlety – even if present, will not detract from the expectation that the gun will go off at some point. And, as we already mentioned, if you are going to use red herrings to distract attention away to create suspense and surprises, it is best to use as few red herrings as possible.
5. Using it novels and novellas
Novellas differ from novels in length, but like any other stories, they have a beginning – a first act, a middle or a second act, and a resolution – or a third act. In length, the middle part, or the second act, should be as long as the two other acts combined.
There is a lot of room for Chekhov’s Guns and red herrings in novellas and novels, and of course, since novels are longer, the number of Guns and herrings a novel can handle will be bigger. However, in a novel, there will be different types of Chekhov’s Guns. Some of them will be direct, and pay off more quickly, others will be subtle and will not get their payoff near the end.
You can introduce the direct Chekhov’s Guns at whichever point you want, with the sole distinction that their payoff should be quicker than the payoff of the subtle ones. If you introduce one at the beginning of an act, barring the third or final act, the gun should ideally go off by the end of the act or the beginning of the next one, and cause an impact on the story to keep it in motion.
You can introduce subtle Chekhov’s Guns – in the form of objects, animals, characters, situations that become meaningful later, no later than the middle of the second act. This gives you enough time to distract the reader’s attention away from the gun before it goes off in the final act. These guns have a bigger impact on the story than the direct ones, and instead of causing more motion for the story, they resolve something – an issue, or a mystery surrounding something (as in the case of animals and characters), and create a sense of cohesiveness in the story.
Red herrings can be introduced up until the end of the second act. The role of a red herring is to distract the reader, and the protagonist, to draw the attention away, and such an introduction should not be done in the third act. Similarly, the number of Chekhov’s Guns that become red herrings by the end of the novel (by become, we refer to the fact that they do not lead anywhere or go off in the third act), should be minimal.
In the third act, the focus is on the resolution of the story. If a Gun, direct or subtle, is introduced in the third act and goes off, or resolves a part of the story, then it shows the use of deus-ex-machina rather than a Chekhov’s Gun. Deus-ex-machina comes from Ancient Greek plays, where a god would appear in the final act of the play and resolve a conflict or offer information towards the resolution or information surrounding a mystery that prevailed in the play. In modern literature, it is discouraged from use, as it is an easy way out of whatever situation the protagonist is in. The resolution in a story should always come from the protagonist, even if they have to use an object (a Chekhov Gun) to do it.
6. Using Chekhov’s Guns in book series
A book series, no matter if it contains two, three, four or more books, offers great opportunities to use Chekhov’s Guns in various different creative ways.
For example, an object that the protagonist finds in the first novel can become important later on in book four or five. A character that is only mentioned in the first book becomes an important character in book five. If the series follows different protagonists, a character mentioned in the second book can become a protagonist in book 12.
There are various examples and different ways that you can play around with Chekhov’s Guns in book series. A novel that is a part of a book series can handle more than a few red herrings at the end of each novel (except for the last one, for obvious reasons). Every red herring in a previous book can become a Chekhov’s Gun in subsequent books.
We can see many examples of this in the Harry Potter series. Sirius Black is mentioned in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, and then he is neither mentioned nor appears again until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where he is the titular character. In the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry hides his forbidden potions book in the room of requirement right next to a bust upon which someone had placed a crown of a sort. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that crown is revealed to be Ravenclaw’s diadem, which Voldemort had turned into a Horcrux and hidden inside the very same room of requirement, which had been of help to Harry himself before.
It’s worth mentioning that that situation also ties up the Chekhov’s Gun that is the ghost of Ravenclaw, the Grey Lady, whom Harry had always known about but had not spoken to during his time at Hogwarts.
So, what ties in all the Chekhov’s Guns together across series? The overarching plot, as well as any subplots that may be spanning across the series and involve the major characters in the series (like the secret identity of a character, for example, or a budding relationship between characters who are not the protagonist and their love interest, and so forth).
The Chekhov’s Guns introduced in series that are meant to have a long term payoff are different from the Chekhov’s Guns relating to the plot of each book in particular; these have to go off by the end of the novel. It is the red herrings of the previous novels that can become Chekhov’s Guns later on. That is why, in a book series, it is good to introduce more of these red herrings in the first books, fewer of the same in the latter books, but you can introduce them in all books but the last one.
Meanwhile, some of the Chekhov’s Guns in earlier books can go off in subsequent books, not just the last one. Trying to have all of the Chekhov’s Guns introduced throughout an eight-book series, for example, in book eight would be a difficult feat because you would have amassed plenty of them over the course of seven novels, and having them all go off near the end can be a bit overwhelming for both you as the writer (trying to wrap everything up), and for the reader (whose sense of suspended disbelief will lessen somewhat).
It is also worth noting that just as in a novel, it is also preferable to leave some unanswered mysteries, some red herrings, at the end of the series as well, to give a touch of chaos to the overall story, as well as to give an indication that the world continues and that there is potential for future stories as well.