From the Writer's Desk: Chekhov’s Gun
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 00:02
Today’s column is going to focus on the literary technique or trope known as Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov coined the term to describe a literary technique in which a seemingly insignificant element introduced early in the story becomes important later on. It can be viewed as a form of foreshadowing, although it usually takes a second read-through to pick up on its initial significance. It has become a somewhat popular technique as of late, perhaps most obviously in the “Harry Potter” series, in which certain items mentioned in previous books gain significance as Horcruxes at the end. This has led (somewhat hilariously) to some authors putting pointless details into their stories just to mess with overzealous Chekhov’s Gun enthusiasts.
Anyway, Chekhov put it this way: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” In my opinion, that shouldn’t be taken too literally. Maybe the rifle is hanging there, not to be fired, but to inform the reader that the occupant of that house is a hunter, or a member of the NRA or some other relevant detail. It’s only when the narrative seems to go out of its way to mention this seemingly insignificant object or whatever that Chekhov’s Gun applies.
I’d like to make a brief little side note: it doesn’t have to be a gun, or even an object. Some examples: a character has bad breath in the first chapter and later reveals some terminal lung disease at the worst possible time, or a character tells a fairy tale and that fairy tale turns out to be true, or a character is Chekhov’s Gun (e.g. quiet, dorky kid is the true Highlander), etc.
However, I like to interpret Chekhov’s Gun as more of a succinct guideline meaning “don’t put anything unnecessary in your narrative.” Unlike in Dickens’s day, writers aren’t paid by the word anymore. There is no reason for a book to be 900 pages long unless it’s essential to the plot (sorry, Game of Thrones. I still love you). For relevant elaboration, check last week’s column. What I didn’t talk about last week was how you decide what is important enough to spend paragraphs on, and what can be presented in a more brisk style.
Conversations usually take paragraphs because they happen in “real time,” so to speak. That is, the time it takes you read the words is probably the time it would take for the conversation to happen in front of you. As this is the case, make sure the conversation is important to the plot continuing. On the other hand, travel is often skimmed over in that five hours of “real time” is given in a quick sentence, e.g. “Caroline booked the most convenient flight to London and landed in Heathrow without incident.”
Chekhov’s Gun can be a really fun technique to use in your writing and is comfortingly familiar to readers, which makes it one of the “better” literary techniques in my opinion. I hope this column has encouraged you both to experiment with it and go searching for them in your favorite books.