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Chekhov's Gun (wikipedia.org)
93 points by void_nill on May 14, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

Well, if you want a much more in-depth discussion (at least if you follow the links...) with examples than Wikipedia, you could do a lot worse than checking tvtropes.org.[1]

P.S. Sorry in advance for the loss in productivity to anyone that clicks though and doesn't know what they're in for...

1: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ChekhovsGun

tvtropes covers so much ground, that I don't know where to start on this one, but maybe you can help me out.

There is a category of story device that goes so far as to become more of a storytelling crutch. Or a wheelchair. Some examples from Star Trek that come to mind (since I'm re-watching TNG right about now):

- Holodeck: Totally new environments on a whim! Just in case FTL travel wasn't enough!

- Troi's empathy sense. Why script and act your way to communicate a character's emotional state when she can just tell you!

- Multiple-universes time travel. Why stick with an existing world and its background when you can just replace it!

- Technobabble. Solves any problem! Causes any problem!

- The Q. Omnipotence itself! To be fair, Voyager did manage to tell some better stories with this one.

While those are plot conveniences, it's still possible to create a good story using those tropes. In fact, some would argue that some of those tropes are what make Star Trek great. Good episodes have come from including the holodeck, Troi(yes, I would say that "Face of the Enemy" was pretty good), time travel and multiple-universes, technobabble, and Q.

Chekov's Gun can rarely, if ever, improve a story. While a lot of people seem to fall for Chekov's Gun, I don't think that those who are aware of it usually consider it to be a mark of a good story. At worst, it's obvious that the writer is bullshitting its audience. Chekov's Gun is just one of the many reasons why Abrams/Kurtzman Star Trek is basically on fire right now.

> - Multiple-universes time travel. Why stick with an existing world and its background when you can just replace it!

I don't think people are bothered by time travel plots because of the infinite possibilities to change the setting. They dislike time travel because it's usually too easy to travel through time, and shows or movies rarely adhere to any consistent time travel mechanics. Time travel stories are good at conveying high stakes, but they almost always lack any real consequences. When someone brings up time travel as a solution, nobody ever says "You know, the last time we traveled through time, we all nearly got killed and almost destroyed the universe."

A lot of good series have this "open sandbox" format where the context of the show is just a vessel for whatever story the writer wants to tell.


* Star Trek Holodeck * The various worlds in Sliders * The infinite worlds in Rick and Morty means there are no limits to what can be written in. * In Community, in a lot of episodes Greendale magically transforms in whatever setting is needed for the story: a court room where the murder of a yam is debated, a western/space battlefield where players duke it out for a grand prize, an entire city made of pillows and blankets, a zombie infested Halloween party etc.

The upside is anything goes, the downside is the perceived lack of consequences (especially in the extreme case of Rick and Morty).

That's it exactly. Its the difference between using stories to build the world, and using the world as a framework for hanging your stories on it.

>Chekov's Gun can rarely, if ever, improve a story

I guess I'd see Chekov's gun as a subspecies of a more broad range of tactics you can use to introduce themes and events so they don't completely come out of left field when the reader arrives at them. If you don't do this, you risk particular events appearing surreal - for instance, if a character shoots another with a gun, did they seem like the kind of person to own a gun? If so, you're basically doing a light form of Chekov's gun anyway, and if not, you either have to put up with the fact its presence is weird and jarring, or put a stutter right in the shooting scene, slow down, and explain why the gun is here. Seems very practical to me - when you require a gun, it takes about ten seconds to go back in the narrative and place one innocently in some corner.

There's definitely a middle ground with tropes, but I think it's also era dependent (and likely cyclical). Some tropes have periods in time when they come into heavy use because people are enjoying them (or there's a new twist to be done with new technological, cultural or social changes), and then become overused a too "tropey" because everyone starts recognizing them. I suspect there may have been a different level of acceptability to some of those tropes (or those tropes in that genre) at the time that series first aired, possibly because of a dearth of good science fiction on TV.

I agree. There may be tropes that right now we want to see more, but in a few years will be viewed as "tropey".

> Technobabble. Solves any problem! Causes any problem!

There's a really nice interview with some of the writers about "Tech the tech". Charlie Stross has it on his blog: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2009/10/why_i_ha...

> At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

> He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

> "It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

> Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

> La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

> Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

> La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

> Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

> "And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."

I genuinely like Stross' books, but sometimes he comes out with blog posts that are so opinionated that I wonder if he just rabble-rousing for the hell of it.

> Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly.

> even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change),

There are many aspects to and levels on which SF functions. One is to explore humanity through a lens of a vastly different society because of technology and how this changed society reflects our own current implicit biases and assumptions. Stross likes to write this type of SF.

Another type of SF is to use very similar sociological and cultural constructs to how we currently function, but use the SF dressing to sneak past people's implicit biases. Want to tell a story about interracial or inter-gender issues, or immigration, or any number of things, without immediately triggering people's cognitive biases about these issues? This type of SF can be good for that. When done well, people accept a premise and the underlying reasoning behind it, and later one think "you know, that's not all that different that this real-life situation", or even don't think that, but it still affects their reasoning and thought process, because you've snuck some rationality past our all to common human cognitive foibles.

I can't imagine Stross doesn't get this, so he has some other reason for taking his stance. Perhaps he thinks the more complex re-imagining of society can do a good enough job for both types, but I don't agree. There are people that just aren't as interested in that stuff, and you lose those people. Also, it's much harder to do (as he notes, it requires a lot of planning and thinking), which means there's likely to be less stories using it, and less people finding a story they like.

IMO, there's definitely a place for both types of SF. Just be aware of which type you're about to consume if you have a preference at that time.

There is a wonderful humorous song about Star Trek and their solution to all problems.


+1 for all statements regarding TVTropes. It isn't "just a click", trust.

Sure isn't just a click. Once you get in, you can never get out of a rabbit hole of hyperlinks.


For F*cks sake. I didn’t know that page until now. I already got lost reading 4 articles in a row. Thanks for ruining my life

You can be optimistic and read this one https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/SugarWiki/TVTropesWil...

> These steps will help:

> - Stay away from tabbed browsing.

really good suggestion!

Useful, but not universal. Efficiency is not the point of storytelling. Some details might not appear to have led anywhere in the story, but could have been there for texture, subtext or symbolism.

Chekhov's minimal, efficient, realist style is unique to him and complements his tone and content, but it's not a necessary condition for good writing. Consider Nabokov's short story Symbols and Signs (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/05/15/symbols-and-si...) which is beautiful purely because of subtext and texture.

It seems more relevant for movies and tv, where the camera often points to the gun very noticeably. I enjoy showing off as a prophet simply paying attention to that.

So one of the best books I ever read about storytelling is Orson Scot Card's Characters & Viewpoints. He points out that there are 4 types of stories.

- Milieu: Stories about a setting.

- Character: Stories about a person.

- Event: Stories about an event.

- Idea: Stories that explore an idea.

Each one has a different point and appeals to a different set of people. What he stresses is focus on what type of story you are trying to tell and stick with that, revolve around that. I think that Chekhov's Gun falls under the similar idea.

One of my favorite authors Brandon Sanderson has a books series that is a character story; however he often talks about seemingly insignificant world building details that don't seem relevant to the story, but he always manages to tie them back to how it effects the characters or what impact it has on their personality. Thus even though some people would consider random religious observances in the story Checkhov's gun they instead add to the story because they flesh out the characters and help make them more real.

When I teach my students how to write academic papers, I always refer them to this statement. Basically, don't raise questions you're not going to resolve (unless in the discussion) and alternatively, raise questions that you will resolve. There may be an equivalent principle for prose, but I'm not aware of it.

I read a paper recently where every figure made me ask a question that the next figure resolved. "Neurons specifically represent barriers! What happens if a door opens up and there is now a path? What happens if the barrier starts lowering into the ground until you can walk over it? What happens if it floats up into the air and you can walk under it?" It was truly beautiful.

And when I read such a paper it is truly a delight!

I saw this a while ago, and knew it would come back to haunt me.

This has ruined many movies for me.

But here's a thread that talks about movies/TV shows in which the gun was never fired:


Funny quote:

> Lost was a Chekhov's Gatling gun

Game of Thrones owed part of its success to not following this principle. I think when most works of fiction and Hollywood leave no detail unused, they lose unpredictability. Over time the audience will talk about shows that stand out from the crowd and Game of Thrones left enough details out to keep its outcome unpredictable to the very end. Had they not run into the budget and time constraints, they could have continued the show for much longer than we got.

It's success was more around its character development and the setting. It set up a lot of things that looked like they'd be used later, but while there were seasons left, people actually gobbled it up. Then the author/writers realized they wouldn't be able to tie up all the loose ends they left, and definitely not in two seasons, so it was unsatisfying. It also meant they were tying up loose ends and not spending time on the character development that made the show.

Same with Lost back in the day.

They littered the first few seasons with all these potentially mind-blowing things and events... and then just never did anything with them. At all.

It’s like they knew about Chekhov’s gun and deliberately decided to blow it off in the biggest way possible.

Yeah, I still love that show and will recommend it to people who haven't seen it yet (or at least to fans of genre fiction like that) but it was frustrating for sure.

Speaking of Lost, I re-watched it with my SO last year because she had never seen it. It's weird how so much of the format has become the standard for network TV drama/adventure/mystery/scifi shows. There were multiple points where she just didn't see the big deal and I had to point out how there just weren't many shows that did things like this back then.

I checked TVTropes but it's not on the list of "Seinfeld is unfunny" examples. Same concept though.

I recommend the first season of "Lost," but warn people that it goes downhill to the point that it's painful.

I've never been a fan of Chekhov's gun. Interactions and details that aren't directly connected to the main plot do a good job at giving the world texture and making it feel alive. Fiction that does away with too many unrelated details (and I'd argue a lot of fiction does this) often feels artificial and empty to me.

What's more, when prose is too tight, any extraneous detail immediately stands out, and you automatically start wondering why the author mentioned it.

More like, you immediately start guessing how the author will use it in the story.

There's a line, and it's different for different people. For example, for me Neal Stephenson plays right along that line pretty heavily, but does it well. He fills his stories with so many digressions and tangents about what the ramifications of the things he's envisioned are, that you're never quire sure whether he's rambling, of if this tangent it going to be one of the few that's integral to understanding the weird resolution he has planned at the end, and not just a fun bit of world building.

Chekhov wrote plays and specially short-stories. Different beasts from novels.

What if something is there just for sake of creating proper atmosphere?

One of the reasons the final season of GOT was so bad is because there were a lot of Chekhov's guns that never went off...

They also left out several that still may or may not go off in the novels. The "Horn of Joramun" comes to mind but I guess that could still do its thing if the books ever get to that point. The show just had it happen another way.

No one wanted to see Tyrion and Sansa fight the corpse of Ned Stark.

I like the concept but in many cases it ends up being annoying/distracting. I'll see something innocuous in a movie or video game, and immediately think "welp, that's going to be an issue later."

Related: if a new hire comes to your company and it's rumored that heads will roll, consider refreshing your contacts at other companies and replying back to 'are you interested' emails.

This annoys me greatly in commercial movies because often it makes the plot predictable. Most of the things that you see are consequential to the plot, so there are no surprises.

This is exactly the comment I was about to make. It becomes a relatively simple mental exercise to guess the possible effects of each item in the scene on the plot.

I think many of the better movies out there are known for adding details that do not play into the plot, but which are there more for art's sake. It's something that is usually appreciated where it occurs, and it definitely improves the quality of the movie.

But it's pretty satisfying when details are still relevant but simply misleading or difficult to put together. In my opinion, that's the ideal scenario. It's ok for superfluous details to be there for the sake of texture but depending on how it's done, it may cause the script to lose its "tightness".

Westworld is one of my favorite shows because I think it accomplishes this very well (S01 and S02, not S03). There are a myriad of details, you get the feeling they'll be important but there's simply so much to keep track of that it's very difficult for it to become predictable and boring.

Westworld is one of my favorite shows as well. (Have you seen Person of Interest? Same director, similar themes later on around S3-4)

I think you're right, that westworld doesn't have a lot of superfluous details - but the degree of plot complexity required to make use of all the details it contains has led some critics to call it convoluted.

On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings trilogy - the movies are full to bursting with strange details that never make any difference to the story. Bilbo's birthday party is one immediate example - there's a bare minimum needed to establish some characters, and then on top of that are details just there for the sake of themselves.

Interesting point about a style, but it sounds like the kind of rule that's meant to be broken.

The specific point about a gun seems even worse. It's cliche to show a gun early on that leads to some tragedy later, and bothers me when I see that done in a TV show/movie. It ties too much into an inanimate object when they could be developing a character. And in a lot of settings, guns are all around and have little to do with the actual story.

This was one of the reasons I didn’t like the book A Canticle for Leibowitz. (Minor spoilers) There’s one character that keeps reappearing throughout the hundreds of years spanned by the story, and you get the impression that this guy is going to be really important at the end. And then no payoff whatsoever. I’m sure that was deliberate as it fits in well with the overall theme of the book, but it was still infuriating.

Learning about this trope has, to some effect, ruined some movies for me. The most recent example I can think of is (spoilers?) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

As soon as I saw DiCaprio's character putting a flamethrower away into his shed, I just knew that there would be some ridiculous climax featuring the flamethrower being used in some way, which kind of ruined the surprise and spectacle of the scene.

I wonder if there's an analogy between a schizophrenic looking at reality and a savy movie goer looking at a movie. There's certainly something a bit deranged to "movie logic".

This random object can't be for nothing, it will be the linchpin later! Why would that street sign keep showing up if it wasn't incredibly important? Maybe the killer lives on that street!

I think that's actually something that movies and video games have in common. If you find a random key in real life, it's very unlikely to be useful. If you find a key in game while exploring a dungeon, you can be pretty sure there's a locked door you'll want it for somewhere later on.

(I remember an old blog post Eskil Steenberg I read years ago about game design and procedural generation that talked about this; specifically, about the difference in the feel of the game between making sure there's only one solution to every problem, or allowing for some degree of flexibility so that the player is sometimes able to achieve their goals in unexpected ways.)

You are describing ideas and delusions of reference.

I wonder how this plays out in mystery stories where there is what seems to be intentional misdirection where you are lead to believe someone might be the killer, but they're not.

Granted some things like "nobody liked him" could be still relevant to the overall story, but particularly in film or TV I find those bits of misdirection common, but also kind of annoying.

The trope has a way of becoming overly predictable. Whenever I'm watching a mystery and there is an inconsequential detail that seems to serve no purpose, I immediately know to focus on that.

Yeah, I'm starting to have this with all movies and TV shows. I mentally keep track of "inconsequential details", and get worried when some of them don't seem to be mentioned again for a while.

I suppose that's the reason for the misdirection... although I usually find it sort of annoying after the fact.

But it is just entertainment.

1Q84 subverts Chekhov's Gun in a fantastic way. It partially breaks 4th wall but it also somehow illustrates that real life doesn't abide by Chekhov's Gun.

It's not a mystery per se but it deals with a lot of unknowns and protagonists finding out information that changes their world-view as they go through the story. It's a great trilogy/book.

It's really fun to call out Chekhov Guns while watching movies with a group. You appear clairvoyant.

Or in my case, I just annoy my SO.

ME: "Oh, you know that (x) is gonna (y) before this episode is over...they just have to! It's Chekhov's (x)!"

HER: :groan: :rolleyes:

Lol so true

Cheap lazy writing would be another way to look at it.

Does any one actually think this is good? Do any good writers defend it?

I'd put it up there with canned laughter. A cheap hack. I'd prefer a world it wasn't needed because writers were good at their art.

I find this is one thing I use in reverse to get a sense of whether something is likely to be fictional. Real experiences are chock full of irrelevant details and false leads that go nowhere. Fiction usually ties things up neatly.

In the Harry Potter series, Rowling makes a conspicuous mention of the diadem in book 5 and it never pays off in the book. It seemed so strange to me. When it returned in the 7th book I literally yelped with joy.

Nice to have a term for this. Thanks.

I used to think that it would be nice to have characters and plots that didn't really matter in a story, until I saw it happen a few times and I didn't like it at all.

Guess he was on to something.

Chekhov's Gun is a determining trope on "Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein". Quite literally, actually. There's a real gun at the beginning of the movie.

The problem, with both Chekhov’s gun and the All is lost moment is once you see them, you can’t unsee them.

I like when little things have subplots of their own in movies, like the tale of the boot in Fury Road.

Once you read this article, it will ruin every book, movie and TV show you watch.

It's become too frequently used. You don't even need to read the article to have noticed it in play in way too many movies and shows.

Well, except for the intentional red herring, right?

He used a phaser

Wrong thread.

I like to think it is more wrong website.

phaser? I hardly know her.

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