“Chekhov’s Gun” Just Shoots Blanks

There’s a premise in writing called “Chekov’s Gun.”  In a nutshell, it asserts that every element introduced into a story — character, object, locale, etc. — must be employed in some significant way at some point in the story.  The term “Chekov’s Gun” came to be from a remark made by Anton Chekov, declaring, “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.”

Personally, I think Chekhov is full of crap, and people only give credence to the “Chekhov’s gun” concept because “Oh, my God! It was ANTON CHEKHOV who said it — therefore it MUST be truth carved in stone!” The whole premise of “Chekhov’s Gun” is invalid in its very statement — because inherent in the assertion is the implication that every piece of set decoration must meet the same standard. Every picture on the walls, every vase and knick-knack sitting on a side table, the carpet, the table lamps, the dinner service (if the set is a dining room), etc., etc., has to be employed somewhere in the course of the action, otherwise it’s unnecessary. If carried to it’s logical extreme, “Chekhov’s Gun” would have plays performed on totally bare sets, apart from those props which are actually employed in the performance. The problem there is that it leads to predictability — if the audience sees a gun, a knife, a chair, a table, a lamp, etc., it knows that sooner or later those particular items are going to be employed by the actors and will start figuring out when, how, and why. The suspense is lessened, and with it, any impact the performance might have otherwise had.

The same thing applies to writing fiction — and, to a lesser degree, non-fiction — in that if every detail included in a story, novella, or novel exists only to “reveal character, advance plot, or support theme”, as advised by James D. MacDonald, then again the element of predictability creeps in. The reader will wind up subconsciously anticipating or even expecting Chekhov’s gun to show up again and be fired. By the very fact that Chekhov’s Gun — whatever it might actually be, animal, vegetable, or mineral — exists, it draws attention to itself, and in doing so not only lessens dramatic tension in the narrative, but also the emotional impact on the reader when the gun eventually goes off. The last thing any author or writer of fiction wants to have happen is for his or her audience to react with, “Yeah, saw that one coming since Chapter Two….”

But what about misdirection? This is what utterly undermines the “Chekhov’s Gun” concept. What about the idea of having multiple “guns” out there, presented in such a way that none of them stand out or apart from the others in apparent prominence or significance? What if the gun hanging on the wall is never used, but the letter opener that has been lying on the desk in plain sight is snatched up and becomes the murder weapon — or means of self-defense, or whatever? Assuming equal presentation of both, the audience (readers) will, quite understandably, regard the firearm as inherently more dangerous than the letter opener, so that when the opener comes into play, their reaction will be “OK, I didn’t see that one coming!”

The bottom line is this: unless you have specific stylistic or narrative purpose in adhering the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” don’t. It’s bullshit. Chekhov was a brilliant playwright, he employed his own writing dicta almost flawlessly, and created some incredible works for the stage. As a consequence — and also in part because he was Russian, and Russian authors are all too often given more credence and stature than they really deserve — he’s become something of a Sacred Cow among writers. The problem with that is that Sacred Cow bullshit is nowhere near as sanctified as the cow or bull that dropped it. So do yourself a favor, and don’t step in it….

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