4 Things Every Writer Must Know About Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhovs Gun Article

By Armaan Uplekar

 “One must never place a loaded gun on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep.”

Such are the fateful words of Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright who outlined one of the most important dramatic principles in narrative storytelling. Even though Chekhov wrote this edict over a century ago, it remains crucially relevant to writers today. What’s so important about the principle of “Chekhov’s Gun” is that it establishes one of the great rules of storytelling: “Don’t make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

I know what you’re thinking: Rules, rules, rulesMore parameters and more restrictions on how I tell my story. When will it end? On the contrary: One of the great things about the Chekhov’s Gun principle is that it can help you become a better writer. By keeping Chekhov’s Gun in mind the next time you sit down to write your screenplay, you’ll be able to create stories that feel tighter, more intentional and even more exciting.


It Helps You Get Rid of Excess

What is Chekhov getting at when he says, “its wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep?” Simple: Every plot point and character you populate your script with is a “promise.” Its a signal to your audience that this is important, whether it be a subplot or supporting role. Its a notation for your audience to keep their eye on this element, the purpose or significance of which will be revealed later.

The reverse of that is also true. If you introduce subplots that you don’t follow up on, your audience will feel cheated. They’ll wonder why you bothered to set-up a conflict or a scene that ended up going nowhere. As a result, Chekhov’s Gun is a principle that helps you cull the excess of your script. It’s a rule of thumb that will push you to only keep the essentials and jettison the rest.

Let’s look back at the original “Saw.” In that film, Jigsaw’s two prisoners are locked in a grimy bathroom with limited resources: the only other items in the room are a dead man, a revolver and a cassette player. All these items (and bodies) end up playing crucial roles during the story. They are all implemented into the plot because of Chekhov’s Gun: all these elements have a function and serve a clear purpose.

By keeping Chekhov’s Gun in mind, you’ll become more economical about your choices as a writer. To be a writer is to create endlessly; you have the ability to put anything you want on a blank page: A table, a car chase, a house fire, a rifle. But by taming your writing with Chekhov’s Gun, you’ll better focus your efforts on the most important parts of your story. You’ll shave away subplots or props or characters that are incidental to your story, and instead write in a way that directly benefits your reader’s understanding of the script.


It Helps You Build Tension

Part of the genius of Chekhov’s Gun is that it creates an inherent sense of tension. Let’s put his metaphor in practice; if you write a scene in which a loaded gun is placed on a table, your audience will expect that gun to be used. As a result, they’ll automatically be put on the edge of their seats as they wait for the inevitable moment that Chekhov’s Gun is put into action.

What this means is that you can manipulate Chekhov’s principle to your advantage. It means that you can use Chekhov’s Gun to influence the way your audience responds to a beat, a character or a piece of set dressing. You will be able to use the principle to direct your readers’ attention. As mentioned above, introducing an element into your script registers to your audience as a promise. If your story has sufficiently engaged your audience, they’ll trust you as a writer; so when that loaded gun finally appears, they’ll assume it will eventually go off.

For example, if you’re writing a scene involving bank robbers, and you establish that there’s a police officer on a stakeout across the street, your reader will read between the lines accordingly and realize there is an active threat to your characters present within the scene. And since your audience will assume that this threat (the “gun”) will come into play, they’ll be reading your scene with bated breath, waiting for things to go to Hell. With that kind of power, you’ll be able to flip Chekhov’s Gun in order to create more compelling set-pieces and scenes through your audience’s expectations.

Let’s look at Curtis Hanson/ David Koepp’s 1990 film, “Bad Influence”, starring Rob Lowe and James Spader for a great example of this. Hanson & Koepp masterfully introduce a set of golf clubs early in the film in such an innocuous way, but it was subtly brought to the audience’s attention in such a way that one knew it would not be the last we see of the golf clubs. And sure enough, two-thirds of the way through the film, as things have gone from good, to bad, to worse, those clubs are reintroduced, still standing casually in the corner of the room. And we know, from the moment we see them the second time, that there will be only one gruesome use for these clubs. It is perhaps one of the most effective uses of Chekhov’s Gun to raise tension that I have ever seen.


It Can Help You Write Yourself Out of Corners

We’ve all been there. Stuck. Blocked. Unsure how you’re going to write yourself out of a tricky scene or situation. Maybe there’s a set piece you’ve painstakingly set up, only to realize you’re not entirely sure how you’ll spring your protagonist from whatever trap you’ve written them into. This can be frustrating and can sometimes feel like you’ve pinned yourself in a creative dead-end.

Enter Chekhov’s Gun. You can use this principle to backtrack through your writing and assess if there are any previous elements you’ve introduced that can be repurposed or implemented for whatever bind your story finds itself in. Does your character stash a secret dagger on their person in the first act? Maybe they can use that weapon in a particularly tense third act situation where there might not be any other means of escape.

You can thus use Chekhov’s Gun to find creative solutions to problems. Consider using previously written items or plot points to solve issues that, initially at least, might seem unrelated. This can not only be freeing for a writer, but it can also help you come up with solutions that feel tightly contained and deliberate.


Use the Gun with Caution

As you can see, there are many benefits to using Chekhov’s Gun, as well as some inherent dangers that must be kept in mind. Firstly, remember that every set-up must have a pay-off. If you set-things up that don’t play out, you’re raising your audience’s expectations without meeting them. Secondly, the key to Chekhov’s Gun is nuance and subtlety. It must be done with a light touch that doesn’t tilt the writer’s hand too much or give the story away but raises the tension and dramatic nature of the narrative. And lastly, the introduction of this narrative device must be done with purpose and intent. It must be used to drive the story and the characters forward; otherwise it’s just fluff.  

By learning the ins and outs of Chekhov’s Gun, you will be able to use this principle as one of your many narrative devices in your creative toolbox to write more vibrant and compelling stories. Good luck!

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