Today’s post is from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises, which is available from your favorite online bookseller in paperback or as an ebook. This is from chapter 6: “Storytelling,” and it’s called “Chekhov’s Gun.” Enjoy!
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device in which an element is mentioned in a story and its purpose or significance becomes clear later. For example, early in a story, the narrative mentions that the hero carries a knife. Later, he uses that knife to defend himself in a fight. If the knife hadn’t been mentioned earlier, it might feel like an object of convenience. On the other hand, if the knife is mentioned but he never uses it, the reader might feel cheated after anticipating a good knife fight.
The real purpose of Chekhov’s Gun is to remind writers that they have an obligation to fulfill all promises made to readers. If the narrative mentions that the hero carries a knife, the reader expects that he will, at some point, use it. If he doesn’t, the writer has failed to fulfill a promise. In other words: don’t pepper your story with unnecessary, insignificant, or meaningless elements. Make everything count!
The term “Chekhov’s Gun” comes from a letter from Anton Chekhov to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (also known as A.S. Gruzinsky) in which he said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
Write a short scene and introduce two objects right at the opening of the scene. Make sure one of the objects is used later in the scene, but leave the other object unused. Note that these objects will not be part of the descriptive content. For example, if the scene includes a description of a room and mentions a chair in the corner, you don’t have to use the chair later because it is part of the setting description.
Let your scene sit overnight then read it back the next day. Notice how the unused object lingers in the reader’s mind in an unpleasant way. Once you’re done, feel free to revise and edit out the unnecessary object or add action in which it becomes significant.
Tips: Differentiating between what constitutes a necessary or unnecessary element can be tricky. In some cases, a knife that is mentioned may not need to be played later (for example, a knife might be mentioned in the context of one of the characters eating). In other cases, a chair that is mentioned will need to be played. A woman might carry a purse, but that doesn’t mean she needs to retrieve anything from it because most women carry purses. On the other hand, if she’s carrying a file marked “TOP SECRET,” the reader expects to eventually be let in on the contents of the file.
Variations: Go through a story you’ve already written and look for instances in which you included unnecessary or misleading elements.
Applications: The difference between excellence and mediocrity in storytelling often lies in the details. Chekhov’s Gun is one of the many details that could cause a story to lose credibility with readers. Therefore, checking your narrative for unnecessary or irrelevant elements will strengthen and improve your work.