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.
How many times have you read a novel or watched a film in which a seemingly insignificant object or piece of information goes on to save the day? This, my friends, is the literary technique known as Chekhov’s Gun. It comes from Anton Chekhov’s belief presented very plainly in his quote above. Basically, what he’s saying is that you can’t introduce a loaded rifle and then never use it. Obviously this doesn’t apply solely to guns – this refers to any object to which you give loaded significance.
Now, when you’re writing a scene, you will want to describe your location. It would be pretty strange writing if you didn’t. Say you’re describing a tower room which is currently the prison of a frustrated princess. Your details, such as the tapestries on the wall, pieces of furniture or the caged bird by the window, are essentially set-dressing, and help set the scene. However, if you suddenly shift your focus to a heavy candlestick on the dresser near the door, the reader might assume the princess will, at some point, use said candlestick to clobber a guard over the head and make her escape. When she doesn’t do that, the reader will be awfully disappointed. In this case, the candlestick has become the gun, and needs to be returned to its rightful status as mere ornament.
Chekhov’s Gun occasionally gets referred to as foreshadowing, which isn’t strictly true. Foreshadowing would relate to things that are mentioned so that when you reach your big reveal, the reader is surprised, but not totally shocked beyond belief since you’ve given them tiny clues along the way. This becomes apparent when the reader goes back and reads for a second time – suddenly your little clues become obvious, and the reader wonders why they didn’t get the twist the first time around. Psycho or The Sixth Sense would be good examples of this.
Be Aware of the Gun
So if Chekhov’s Gun isn’t foreshadowing, what is it? Well, boiled down to its simplest form, it simply means this – make sure everything is mentioned for a reason, and don’t heap significance on something that doesn’t mean anything. When I’m writing, one of the edits that I do on a finished piece is what I call my Chekhov’s Gun Edit. I go back through and highlight passages where I feel I’ve hyped up a location, object or character that has no intrinsic importance to the plot. Occasionally these things might inspire new thoughts and lead to new subplots, in which case I leave them alone as they gain new significance. Otherwise I scale back the emphasis. The second stage of the edit is to find those objects, locations or characters that will have importance later, and then I make sure they sparkle when they’re first introduced.
Of course, no discussion of Chekhov’s Gun would be complete without reference to the MacGuffin. This is almostChekhov’s Gun in reverse, in that something is given great significance but ultimately turns out to mean nothing. However, the MacGuffin is not irrelevant – it is invariably the catalyst for prompting the action in the first place. It could be a stolen object that several parties are trying to find, or a missing person.
Think of the briefcase, or even the watch, in Pulp Fiction – neither of them are important in themselves as they’re only important for bringing the characters together in a certain way. It is the events surrounding the characters that become the focus of the film. The journey becomes more important than the destination.
The Macguffin is relatively easy to plant as you’re writing if you know where the story will go, and you know that the object/person/place won’t have much significance later, while Chekhov’s Gun is harder to control, especially if you’re not sure how the story will end as you’re writing it. If you do know how it will end, then be sure to re-read your writing as you go to make sure you’re not placing too much emphasis on something innocuous. If you don’t know how it will end, wait until you’re finished to look out for any Chekhov’s Guns in case something you emphasise early on turns out to be unimportant after all.
Used properly, both devices can help to create memorable fiction, and they can both help with that pesky writer’s block if you look out for them during written passages when you feel that you’re stuck. As with everything related to writing – have fun with them!
What are some of your favourite examples of Chekhov’s Gun or the MacGuffin? What success have you had using them in your own stories? Please share your thoughts and comments below!