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Chekhov's Gun (wikipedia.org)
257 points by thunderbong 41 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 172 comments

Chekhov Gun discussions always remind me of this Vonnegut passage:

"I had no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist. I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid. I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.

"As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books."

(from Breakfast of Champions, by an author who often tells you the end in the beginning and puts the journey in the details)

Vonnegut drawing graphs of famous story plots:


I saw him do this bit in person in the early 90s and never forgot it.

This is fantastic. Do you have a link to the full talk by any chance?

"The Room", by Tommy Wiseau, is a movie where Chekhov's gun isn't applied. It contains lots of small happenings with no further relevance. It has lots of other issues, technically speaken.

But together they make this film not only amateurish, but it also gives it a certain kind of realism. In real life stuff happens and still may have no further relevance to the "story" after all. In real life there is nobody enforcing Chekhov's gun.

Together with the other charming mistakes and bad acting the film feels quite authentic. It gives this impression that someone just wanted to tell his story, despite not being as professional as we are used to. Like a little child coming home from playing in the woods that excitetly blabbers out the story of what he just experienced.

Same with the Big Lebowski, but in a much more deliberate (and professional) way. The Dude, imagining himself in a film noir story, thinks that every detail is some clue relevant to Bunny's disappearance, but turns out to be completely irrelevant: the guy following the Dude in the VW, the essay in the Dude's car, Jackie Treehorn's note, etc. Instead, basically every single event in the movie after exposition is a red herring when it turns out that the Dude's initial hunch that Bunny kidnapped herself was true all along.

Well, he was on a strict drug regiment during the whole thing.

The Coens do it a lot, in fact it’s basically the entirety of Inside Llewyn Davis.

The one that always gets me is Luke's lightsaber in the original Star Wars. It's introduced as a connection to the father he never knew, making it hugely significant. There's a whole scene on the Falcon of Ben training him to use it. And then he never takes it out again for the remainder of the movie.

You see this in lots of long-play shows/properties. Adventure Time comes to mind. A number of seemingly irrelevant details become central to the main plot in much later episodes (years/seasons later).

I am wondering, however, whether there is some sort of plot bible that lives with the “keepers” of the storyline, or whether some details are just randomly sprinkled here and there as hooks with the hope that writers will weave them into the future plot.

Either way, this type of writing is extremely rewarding to long-time fans of a show.

Doctor Who is similar, with plot twists often spanning seasons.

"And you, daughter of London, there is something on your back." -- Lucius, the chief auger of Pompeii

That quote raises goosebumps on my arm every time I hear it...

Archer is also known for this sort of thing.


That is a surprising thing to note. Though it does help set up two of the most important scenes in the movie: Lightsabers are used in the dramatic battle between Vader and Obi-Wan; It's good to have them in a few scenes if the first time they're in a battle, the mentor is killed. Furthermore, at the end when Luke is doing the trench run, he's relying on his targeting computer until force ghost Obi-Wan tells him to use the force. This relaxing and trusting in the force was directly set up in the Falcon training scene.

I think overall this is the best way to use Chekhov's Gun: Introduce several things, but don't make it obvious how they're going to fit together.

Even though Luke never uses his saber again, its introduction and exposition gives some heft to the later fight between Kenobi and Vader.

Wow I never realized that. Did they already intend to film a sequel and call back to his lightsaber, or was that just a random detail they worked in later?

Lucas definitely had sequels in mind, but it was very much in doubt whether the movie would succeed. There was an official sequel novel by Alan Dean Foster called Splinter of the Mind's Eye released in '78, which was explicitly designed to be filmable on a very low budget if the original didn't do too well. That does feature Luke duelling Vader with his saber.

It also (rather uncomfortably in light of later revelations) features Luke & Leia as a romantic couple! Apparently Lucas signed off on Foster's manuscript, so he hadn't had the idea that they were siblings yet.

Luke and Leia were teased as a romantic couple in Empire, she kissed him on the lips to draw Han's ire, and then it's hinted that she's his sister in the final scene of Dagobah/when he calls out to her via the force. The incest thing is something that Lucas was deliberately playing with, whether Splinter took that into account or not.

How do you get “deliberately” from that?

The comment you’re replying to is correct; there’s plenty of evidence that Lucas made up both the plots and crucial details of all the Star Wars films as he went along, rather than plotting it all out in advance. Telling people he had, or at least allowing them to believe so, was just another inspired marketing trick.

He has blinders on and is learning to use the force, which he does use again. his lightsaber isn't used again, but they are used again in a master's fight.

> charming mistakes

One character being played by three different actors (either that, or three characters being so similar I confused them as the same character despite being three different actors) is hardly charming IMO.

Longer form stories, such as Game of Thrones (where Azor Ahai, and other such plotlines are literally killed off) are probably more entertaining. It sucks to see a fan theory turn out to not matter at all, but not everything ends up being relevant to the conclusion.

I don't think a 2 or 3 hour movie has any room to dwell on unimportant details. Anime and miniseries do have that time. We can watch Goku mess around with Princess Snake or Krillen get his Namekian power up (which doesn't matter for any fight, but is good development for the character in isolation).

That's probably the charm of Cowboy Bebop. There's so much detail and none of it really matters. The interesting story happened like 10 years ago (in universe time). That's be my pick for a show / story with very little Chekhov gun going on.


Chekhov gun is probably contrasted with Red Herring, which is explicitly a detail that not only doesn't matter, but purely exists to mislead the audience. Any Chekhov gun heavy plot needs red herrings to balance things out, otherwise it's too predictable.

“ Red Herring, which is explicitly a detail that not only doesn't matter, but purely exists to mislead the audience.”

There is also the McGuffin which appears to matter, but exists entirely to elicit character action. For instance, in “Psycho” the plot line about the stolen money is dropped almost as soon as it is established, but it did its job by getting Marion on the run and into the motel.

The MacGuffin isn’t just there to elicit a response though… it’s a primary motivator for the characters. It’s usually (but not always) a physical object, but that matters less than the fact that the characters are trying to obtain it (usually unsuccessfully). It’s also rarely explained — it is an object that simply exists.

Hitchcock loved the MacGuffin, but Psycho isn’t the example I’d use. The money in Psycho is a useful plot device, but is not a MacGuffin. Money is too common ofna motivation. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction (which is of unexplained importance, but clearly something they want to obtain) is a classic example of a MacGuffin.

The Pulp Fiction briefcase is more of a "pure MacGuffin", where the film director / scriptwriters are playing with the concept of MacGuffin more than actually using it as its intended purpose.

After all, its a Tarantino film. He basically expects the audience to be familiar with film theory (or at minimum: expects the audience to already be familiar with "typical plotlines").


Your typical action movie / popcorn movies: Raiders of the Lost Arc (The Arc of the Covenant), Mission Impossible (The Rabbit's Foot), and Men In Black (Orion's Belt), and pretty much every James Bond movie, has MacGuffins galore and are better examples of it.

The scriptwriter doesn't care about the MacGuffin. But a well written story has the __audience__ care deeply about it. Otherwise, the escalation and conflict has no purpose. Pulp Fiction / Tarantino used the briefcase as an exercise in how to make the audience care for an object, despite never really explaining why that object is the center of all this conflict.


Golden Fleece, Apples of the Hesperides (aka: Heracle's 11th task), Holy Grail. It doesn't really matter what these objects do, we just use them as storytelling devices to get the characters thrust into conflict.

the Pulp Fiction briefcase is actually a deconstructed MacGuffin, stripped of everything except the plot device itself - no explanation for why it's important, no inherent meaning, no payoff, just a thing that drives the plot. A lot of Tarantino's work has this kind of postmodern element to it.

I don’t know if I agree that the audience needs to care about the MacGuffin for it to be a well written story though. I think in some circumstances it can help, but it’s not necessary (or sufficient) for a good story.

I mean, I read that Lucas thought of R2D2 as the MacGuffin of “A New Hope”, and thought that it was important for the audience to care deeply about him. And it worked. However, as a film device, I think it’s more important that the audience cares that the protagonist cares about the MacGuffin. I still don’t know why I should care about the Maltese Falcon, but I know that Bogart certainly cared. And for me, that was enough to make the story compelling.

I do agree though about Pulp Fiction. The briefcase was a very meta reference where the audience is assumed to know what is going on. And in that case it helped to provide a common thread through the different plot lines. But from a higher level, it was done with a wink and a nod to the audience. It was basically using the MacGuffin as a foil to use as the “typical linear storyline” when what Tarantino was really doing was playing with time lines and points of view.

With regards to Pulp Fiction, is the Gold Watch another MacGuffin?

> In real life there is nobody enforcing Chekhov's gun.

Of course not. Which is sort of the point. We already have real life. Stories are something different. Checkov's gun isn't a statement of some kind of platonic ideal of fiction construction, it's a convention. We like stories with "tight" framing because it's easier to watch and keeps our attention on the things that matter. And that's all it means.

You can tell other kinds of stories. Art is art. But if you want people to like your stories (or whatever other artwork you're producing) you'll probably be better served y adhering to convention and violating it in small, targetted ways than you will be throwing out long-held standard assumptions.

(Note that the fact that these conventions exist is itself ammunition for creativity, btw. A "realist" story where nothing necessarily matters is going to have a very hard time delivering a creative twist at the end. A conventional plot, though, can leverage the fact that the audience is conditioned to expect things based on rules like Chekhov's, and subvert those in interesting ways.)

Chekhov's gun treatment can remove an element of surprise, or worse, reveal whole plot-line. It's a convention that is an art in itself, too much and too little can ruin the experience.

Properly blending it in is a form of art, and a surprise in itself. For example, [spoilers] the rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption, or more literally, the rifle on the wall in Shaun Of The Dead. A good gun makes you go "oooooh!"

On the other hand, building up readers' expectations with details that turn out to be irrelevant is just deception. See the last season of Game of Thrones, for instance. All those characters that were carefully built over the last seasons get discarded without any explanation.

There's sometimes stuff like that in Tarantino movie, like the outlaw lady in Django.

I'm pretty much alone in the world in thinking this, but I consider the rock hammer in Shawshank to be a bad execution of Chekhov's Gun, albeit for reasons unrelated to the core logic of that rule.

Basically, Shawshank clearly establishes itself as having a gritty, realistic tone, where shit happens for reasons that have no cosmic significance or relation to your epic hero arc. Specifically, when that prisoner turns out to be a witness who can clear Andy, and just suddenly gets shot by avaricious guards who don't care about the injustice. (If it hadn't been already, Red's final parole speech cements that tone.)

It's a huge betrayal of that when you turn around and say "oh man, if you just belieeeeeeeve in yourself hard enough you can somehow make a figurine carving tool last 100x longer than is realistically possible and accomplish major excavation work, it's all about your force of will".

(Similar complaint about Interstellar, which commits to hard sci-fi enough to include an expensive, photo-realistic black hole, and doubles back and resolve the plot with "ah man we just have to tap into the mysterious fifth-dimensional power of love!")

Discarding with explanation can sometimes be used to effect too.

For example, suppose a character sends a spy to accomplish an objective. Meanwhile, another group of people are also trying to do this, which will benefit the main character, although the main character is unaware of this. The second group gets there first, and even though there was considerable buildup to the spy's mission, in the end, his presence doesn't matter (much).

If you want as lean a story as possible, you would cut out the spy's mission altogether, but its presence gives a sense of realism, because the character in the story doesn't know ahead of time that sending the spy would be redundant.

I don't think that rule expresses universal truth. These rules come and go. You have great writers who wrote famous books which don't follow these Storytelling that follows then becomes boring and predictable when they are widely used.

The junk adventure/vampire what not literature tend to follow all the structural rules and is as forgettable as it gets.

The argument with real life matter. Because when your storytelling rules make it impossible to tell real stories, then there is something wrong with them.

according to some theories, there is enforcement of Chekov's gun. Reality is combinitorial explosive, ie. there are vastly too many inputs for us to synthesize. So our perception and memory both function to "chunk" events and objects. These "chunks" are what you perceive and remember. So you don't just bump into random objects, but in fact you only see and remember things that are in some way relevant. In other words, everything is a Chekhov gun in some ways.

I think there are lots of different thinkers with this perspective, here is one concise formulation:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPByuAeFxwE

The movie that comes to mind for me is Napoleon Dynamite. My first impression was that it was just aimless slapstick, but really it's about a group of misfits becoming friends. The events that lead there sometimes pay off and are sometimes are seemingly random. This really makes it feel charming and realistic.

Speaking of that movie, I can recommend anyone who is familiar with The Room, but who hasn’t seen The Room, to watch the movie The Disaster Artist (2017) instead. I’ve only watched the latter and not The Room itself but watching the latter instead was a nice experience.


The Disaster Artist is based on the book "The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made" by Greg Sestero, and it’s got James Franco portraying Tommy.

I had high expectations for that movie but it didn't turn out as good as I expected.

I have to agree, but this seems to be a bit of an unpopular opinion. I don't think it really captured the spirit of the book. It was too nice, and made the characters too likeable.

I think Tommy should always be a villain. You should never like him! He's this terrible person that on some level you despise, but at least he's interesting.

How many miserable jerks are there that won't shut up about their stupid film idea? How many actually follow through?

It's worth watching The Room first, IMO

I also think that the rifle can “set the frame” for the character or scenario.

E.g. that the character is the kind of person who owns guns.

It does not go off or get used, but the viewer will use that as input to make a judgement about the character.

In good writing, details serve multiple purposes. Just showing a gun because it will be used later will seem ham-fisted to an audience. A good writer will introduce the gun as a character moment and as setup.

Maybe the rifle/gun is just a bad example today? I watch movies all the time where there are guns or rifles which does not gow off. And I sure don't feel like some promise was broken.

Chekhov used this example of a rifle on the wall in 1889, years before the invention of the movie camera.

It shouldn't be taken as advice on movie production design.

I think it’s something which is more obvious in a literary context where not talking about the gun means there is no obvious reference to it, but in a movie it may still exist, they just do not draw attention to it.

Gun isn’t literal here. Gun is a metaphor for details; if the details don’t serve the plot (if the gun doesn’t go off) then the details should be removed (don’t show the gun)

One of the things that made Quentin Tarantino's early films, particularly Pulp Fiction, such a breath of fresh air is that they did this with abandon. John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson would chat away about McDonald's in France or whether or not they were prepared to eat pork and it was of no consequence whatsoever to subsequent events, other than to give characters a bit more depth. Too many films and novels have things happen for no other reason than that the plot is going to require it in the next act and it's great when a writer takes a different approach.

The great thing about the Room is that it is so poorly acted that it is impossible to replicate. So it is a kind of a side-channel into the minds of the people playing here. It might be lame and unwatchable at places, but it's also more genuine than any performance a trained person could put forth.

Not to be confused with "Room", which I recommend.


But some of those things that are dropped don't make any sense to have no impact on the characters, like someone having cancer. It's just mentioned and never brought up again.

I think I see the argument for why that's 'charming', but I've seen far more enjoyable media that does it better.

Details that build characters is good. X has cancer is fine, albeit heavyhanded. Certainly enough of a characterization to work in low-plot action movies for example.

Not everything needs to be relevant to the plot. But I'm not convinced that a 2 hour movie has the room for this kind of storytelling.

It’s also celebrated as the worst film ever made.

I've never seen The Room so my opinion may change if I ever do, but there is another movie that I have seen (though only by proxy of MST3K) called Manos: The Hands of Fate that also has been referred to as the worst movie ever made, and I wholeheartedly agree.


Not sure why I chose to watch that but I have to agree, that's comparable to The Room (if not as funny on it's own like The Room is, absent the jokes added by the MST3K hosts this one would be getting fast-forwarded constantly).

Things that are "bad" like that are uniquely bad. It's not just annoying or purposefully bad, it's a side effect of a series of poor judgements that make it amusing.

The most revealing part was in a Youtube comment that explained the master's helper guy (who takes up a ton of screen time) was clearly on acid the whole time, which makes his totally unusual behaviours understandable for anyone who has tried that before. But still very very socially awkward and creepy.

Those 2, and "Plan 9 from Outer Space", are the 3 I generally hear "lauded" as the worst.

I thought Battlefield Earth held that title?

If you're masochistic, download it from somewhere. If you're sadistic, have people watch it with you.

I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I call it ridiculously bad.

Going to test my pain threshold with that this evening. Thanks.

Probably suicidal to say so, but I thought I made the most awful films. https://poetaster.de/vendetta

In most of the best-known classic Chinese novels, like "Journey to the West", "Water Margin" and "Dream of the Red Chamber", there is usually a character that feels very important in the first few chapters, then nowhere to be found in the rest of the book.

When people reading these novels, most of them wouldn't think of those runaway characters because there are many new characters and exciting plots. But it just strikes when people start to recall the plots sometimes after reading: one of the most important characters already foresee all of the conflicts, and they just run away and live their life rather than participating in the following conflicts.

It turns out, most of the novels are written by frustrated scholar-officials. They got burnt out in reality so they wrote those novels. Many of them would become hermits and enjoyed their life happily after. It sounds escapist but there's some Zen in it in the context of Chinese literature.

It feels like "The Shawshank Redemption" when it strikes me that the hammer was in the bible, and the most intensive scene was presented in a very calm way when people didn't know it.

This is a really good insight - the trope of the "frustrated scholar-official" is extremely prominent in the Chinese literary tradition. That being said, the ideal of "becom[ing] hermits and enjoy[ing] their life happily after" was something of a literary conceit; in most of the actual literature written by people who tried to do this, there's an extremely strong tension between the idealized/romanticized apolitical world of the hermit, and the reality that farming was very hard labor and not something most literati particularly enjoyed. Probably the most famous example of this is the poetry of Tao Yuanming. (Note: I wrote my Master's thesis on depictions of eremitism in ancient/early medieval China.)

That’s actually very interesting!

I just got done reading the Three-Body problem which is translated from Chinese and there was a very strong escapist narrative which felt very strange for a westerner reading it.

This actually adds a lot of context as I felt the book didn’t live up to the reviews but I felt all along that it was down to cultural differences and the translation to English.

Linking to 5 tvtropes pages —5 possibly-very-deep rabbit holes— on a generally nonworking day? Truly diabolic :D

The image in the first link points out that there is a literal rifle on the wall in Shaun of the Dead. That's a pretty cool reference to the origin of Chekhov's gun.


Sorry if I ruined anyone's weekend...

Nah, I just meant it as a humorous reference to the well-known cognitive blackhole properties of TV Tropes.

I never really liked Chekhov's Gun, as it tends to make the world feel artificial and barren. Details unrelated to the story at hand make the world feel much more vibrant and interesting. It gets worse as a story's length increases - for instance TV shows that go on for years where the main characters only seem to have relationships with 5-6 other people in the entire world.

Of course there's a separate issue where a fictional work will artificially emphasize the importance of something and then ignore it. For example, people say something's impossible, then there's a close up shot of someone's face, he slowly says "It's not...I know a guy" and loud dramatic music starts playing. There, the creators are telling the audience that this is something important, and it will be odd if it's not followed through (though even then, I've seen some creators not follow through in interesting ways).

This principle kills surprises because a soon you see the rifle you know what will happen. A little bit of misleading is not a bad thing.

Surprise is overrated. Suspense is superior. The best explanation of the difference is given by Hitchcock in an interview with Truffaut.

We see two characters talking for 45 seconds. Then a bomb goes off, that was under the table. The audience didn't know there was a bomb: big surprise; but the dialogue between the characters is completely irrelevant and eclipsed by the explosion.

Now imagine the same scene, but before, we see a terrorist placing the bomb under the table. Now the scene is totally different, and every word that comes out of one of the characters' mouth is fascinating. Does either one of them know about the bomb? Will they find out in time? Will they survive? Etc.

Suspense > surprise.

You see a man putting a bag under a table. Two man arrive, sitting at the table, you wait for the bomb to explode because the bag must have a meaning. The meeting ends, the men stand up, one is killed by headshot.

And your scene depends on the characters. Is one the main character? Highly unlikely he get killed.

It's even worse if it's a TV series. Main character is strapped to a bomb? No problem. Guest star is strapped to a bomb? Might get killed. Unknown supporting role strapped to a bomb? Sure death. I think that was part of GoT's success. Surprise deaths. And nudity of course.

If everything has a meaning even the chosen actor is important. Known actor in a minor role? Surely gets important.

>I think that was part of GoT's success.

At the beginning of the show. A few seasons in, lots of people developed plot armor.

By that point the show was popular enough for them not to need a compelling story or nudity; fans would watch either way.

That is interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before.

I think a recent series which bucked this trend was For All Mankind. Rather than building suspense, bad stuff just happened with no warning. And it wasn’t a jump scare, it just happened. The entertainment for me then came from the characters reactions and how the plot then unfolded.

I actually class it as one of the best shows I’ve seen. I feel it managed to be very wholesome while also having some major emotional highs and lows. In particular, it didn’t build drama just for the sake of keeping the audience engaged.

I could talk about that show for ages.

Inglorious Basterds does this very well, its opening scene is very close to what you describe, as well as a number of other scenes in the film.

A great example of this is a scene in the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. Before the scene starts the narrator explains, in detail, what exactly will happen in the scene, and what the end result will be. None of this makes the scene itself any less thrilling.

What's interesting about this example in particular is when the theory building occurs: before or after.

Nobody is surprised, then subsequently asks no questions. The questions simply come after.

And so I imagine the sequence of when you want the viewer to ask their questions can be used as a literary device (famously, in media res).

I don't but that one is better than the other: you surely need both for a good story.

yet in OPs example, the "surprise" consists of a threat not being enactioned, therefore it is an instrument of suspense

I attended a talk from Digger webcomic author and artist Ursula Vernon, and she seemed to have a different approach. If I remember right, she said that instead of planning the whole thing in advance and placing specific Chekhov’s Guns as needed, she put in a lot of small detailed world building everywhere, allowing her to choose from whatever seemed appropriate at the time.

Chekhov‘s Guns are important for short stories (which is what Chekhov was famous for), but short stories are not the only type of fiction and they don’t fit everywhere.

Chekhov wrote short stories and plays. It is harder to apply the same principle to serialized narratives like tv-shows and comics, since you don't know how everything pans out and you cant go back and edit.

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit

'knowing what will happen' is not in itself a limit on good literature. You know what's going to happen in every Shakespeare play long before you've seen or read it.

"Chronicle of a Death Foretold", by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for people unfamiliar. It’s a very good short book.

Salman Rushdie is an example of a master writer who will eat this cake and still have it. He often states preety early in the book something like "this was Y, X's wife, who will later kill him in his sleep, in his room, with a bread knife", and when the time of killing comes he will still manage to surprise you.

This reminded me of a particularly grisly character introduction in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It's played to the opposite effect where it's not going to be a surprise at all. It's hardly even suspenseful, but hangs another helping of dread over the story.

> Toadvine glanced at the man's forehead but the man's hat was pushed down almost to his eyes. The man smiled and forked the hat back slightly with his thumb. The print of the hatband lay on his forehead like a scar but there was no mark other. Only on the inside of his lower arm was there tattooed a number which Toadvine would see in a Chihuahua bathhouse and again when he would cut down the man's torso where it hung skewered by its heels from a treelimb in the wastes of Pimeria Alta in the fall of that year.

It's not really the gun on the wall, the bread knife, or the tattoo. It's the narrator revealing a kind of untrustworthy omniscience by spoiling future details of the story.

A cough means blood in the napkin. Blood means cancer. If a character coughs, they die.

This is thoroughly ridiculed in A Series of Unfortunate Events (the Netflix TV series and presumably also the books that they're based on). (Mild spoiler alert) The bank manager has a noticeable cough the whole way through. If anything it gets worse and other characters comment on it, and it seems for sure that it will be a plot point. Of course, it ultimately comes to nothing.

Mitchell & Webb did this even quicker with "A Man who has a Cough and it's just a Cough and he's Fine": > A woman, called Kylie, repeatedly exits a train, as a man greets her, who has a cough. The cough gets worse, until one time Kylie leaves the train to find no-one there. She believes he has died of TB, but he walks up behind her, stating "No, it was just a cough."

No, it just tells you that somebody will fire the rifle at some point. This increases tension but does not really tell you much about what is going to happen except it is going to get dangerous and violent.

Also, this makes stories different from real-life. The famous quote "a reader lives a thousand lives" is thus not true.

I'd argue that if the gun is shown to lead the audience on, but it not beeing fired is a twist to the plot or a relevant conclusion, then in the sense of the metaphor it still "has gone off"

Quite dull. That's why I love The Big Lewobski. It's full of irrelevant details. There is a story too but the movie it's about the little things.

Yeah, yesterday I watched Star Trek Beyond and I hated all those foreshadowing events and almost everything else. Spoilers: There's a supposedly useless artifact, which gets a big camera zoom when getting archived and oh surprise, it turns out to be a weapon of mass destruction. There's a huge space station, which gets introduced with long camera shots full of happy people and oh surprise, it's about to get attacked later. There's some relationship drama and discussion about a stupid gift, which later gets used as a tracking device to save everyone. The captain notices a motorcycle on a spaceship, which later gets used to make a stupid stunt show to save everyone. The captain, for no apparent reason, plays a video log showing the crew of an old space ship and oh surprise, later this video is used to reveal the identity of the villain. Some alien found some old music tapes from our time and we get to hear them loudly, and of course this music is later used as a super weapon to save the day. ...

Yeah? Well, you know, that's just like uh, your opinion, man.

You could say that it's the little things that help to really tie the film together (even though they don't really have a significant impact on the main plot). In most cases they aid in defining the characters.

Jesus being a pederast doesn't have much of an effect on the storyline, but it provides context into the background of the character, so he's not just merely a competing bowler.

Another example of an even more seemingly irrelevant detail is when Jackie Treehorn starts sketching something on a pad upon receiving a phone call. When it's revealed to the audience what it is, not only is it surprisingly funny, but it hints at who Jackie Treehorn is. Maybe he's in his line of business because it means more to him than just a lucrative enterprise.

These kinds of "irrelevant details" are fairly common in films by the Coen brothers. When I think of their film Raising Arizona, I'm pleasantly reminded of how it's revealed that the evil nemesis just happens to have that same tattoo as HI.

Right but all those things play a role.

They play a role in a different sense: if you see a rifle it may be there because it's going to be fired or maybe because the character likes rifles. Could you imagine The Big Lebowski without bowling? And yet bowling has nothing to do with the story.

If The Dude was not otherwise occupied listening to bowling casettes, Jackie Treenhorn’s goons (the rug pissers) might not have caught The Dude off guard, and the case of mistaken identity (which drives the whole plot) might never have occurred.

If I were to watch a documentary about The Big Lebowski I'd want it to be called Bowling, Interrupted.

It's not a universal requirement of "good" writing. Contrast it with the shaggy dog style, basically the antithesis of Checkov's gun. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaggy_dog_story

IRL is probably more like the shaggy dog.

Its a polemic really. The terseness and immediacy of Chekhov's stories and plays made them 'modern' and set them in contrast to older art. It was a very powerful shtick at the time.

Of course today's times are very different. Our lives have so much content and immediacy now that is beyond Chekov's experience that people seek out exactly the opposite.

Still I think the way he carefully and deliberately constructed things has a lot to teach us. In the software world he'd be a builder of lean core libraries and a hater of the bloatware apps that use them.

Agreed, But:

Wikipedia cites it as a "dramatic principle", not merely a style. I've seen it advocated as "the way things should be done". That's why I think the contrast is important to note: it's not a principal of good writing, it's merely one style of telling a story.

In art there are no absolutes like in management you can always find good examples proving the principles wrong.

The principle is more a guideline for new writers not to ramble and maintain focus especially if there are word limit restrictions typical to published short stories of the era, you cannot afford to waste words on things that don't matter to the story.

Established authors like Hemmingway or Asimov can get published with shaggy dog stories most regular authors cannot.

Even those authors can get a way once in a while, however most of the time they too have to follow the principle like everyone else too.

At the mention of a shaggy dog story I am perpetually reminded of a literary great's famous one.

If you've not read it, don't read the plot summary, the [spoiler] is enormous.

Get the text, enjoy the story, love the wit.


One my favorite subversions of this technique is in Mr. Robot, with a gun hidden in a popcorn machine. Using of the gun is never shown on screen: the show assumes that the person watching remembers that a gun was shown and hidden, and allows the connection to be made "between the lines". Excellent use of Chekhov's Gun, but it only works because of a certain amount of TV tropes literacy.

I remember watching James Bond movies as a kid. There was always this scene where Q gave 007 a handful of cool gadgets, and would you know it, by the end of the movie he had used them all! I always thought "WTF man, he literally gave him exactly what he needed for the movie, not a single one that went unused! What were the odds!?"

Yea, but if Bond didn't use a cool gadget we might have left the theater a bit dissapointed?

For sure. It's just this weird balance between "real life realism" and not disappointing the public. I absolutely would have been pissed if he had not used the tiny air tank or the gas bomb in his suit case and all :-)

I've seen this principle come up a few times but I don't think I fully understand it.

For example, assuming a passage in a story where a protagonist enters person X's house and a particular room is described in much detail. The described detail does not necessarily advance the story but instead does "character building" hinting at the personality of person X. There literally could be a loaded gun hanging on the wall because X is a secluded hunter living in a cabin. Is this then a violation of the principle?

Edit: I've recognized the principle a few times, mostly in TV shows with lingering camera shots on seemingly unrelated objects, and as another commenter mentioned, it can frequently spoil a surprise twist. There is also a vague line between spoiling the twist and foreshadowing.

> There literally could be a loaded gun hanging on the wall because X is a secluded hunter living in a cabin. Is this then a violation of the principle?

Yes. If the gun doesn't appear anywhere after its first mention, then it should not have been described. This is quite literally what Chekhov says, and I think he's right.

It works the other way too. In order for a gun to be used in a story, it has to have been alluded to before. A character cannot suddenly find a gun in their hand and use it in any significant manner. If they do, the audience will feel cheated and be upset. But avoiding this pitfall is super easy, all one has to do is just present the gun a few moments before it is needed.

It the final scene of "Sea of love" (1989), Pacino's character overpowers the bad guy with an object he finds under the bed. This object has been shown to the audience before. If it hadn't, the scene would not have worked.

Of course, rules exist to be broken... but do so at your own risk.

I disagree. Elements in a story should help communicate character setting or plot, preferably more than one at the same time, but I think it's perfectly fine to introduce elements that only communicate setting and/or character without being part of the plot. Character and setting are important parts of a story.

If something communicated neither character setting or plot then it should be cut.

If a detail does character building then it’s done it’s job. The point is it should have a job to do.

I think the example of a gun is an extreme one. A gun on the wall isn’t just any old background detail, it’s going to grab the audiences attention, and hold that attention. It’s a serious distraction, far more than most other background details, an ominous threat of violence hanging over every scene it’s in. Whether you intended that as an author doesn’t change the fact that this is what it’s effect is going to be. If your going to put it there, you’d better have a plan for resolving the tension it’s going to create, whether it gets fired or not.

I’m not sure I entirely buy Checkhov’s point as a hard rule, sometimes your just doing a bit of world building, but I think he chose the example fo a gun on the wall as an extreme example. There’s no dodging that one.

The best stories frequently break the principle. There is a ton of worldbuilding done in even simple-reading stories like the Hobbit, that are largely irrelevant to the greater whole, but serve to give the reader a better perspective.

Mindlessly following Chekhov's Gun, in my opinion, will always result in pulp fiction. Whether it's TV or novels, or movies. If you've stripped a story down to the bare basics, all you're left with is predictability that gives the reader an easy ride.

Not to say that's always a terrible thing. After a stressful day, pulp fiction can be the perfect way to relax. Most people have something mindless that they enjoy.

But it is incredibly rare that you end up with something truly great if you religiously follow the principle.

Great fanatasy (world-building) literature enhances Chekhov's Gun. In Tolkien's stories everything has meaning and is used somewhere and somewhen else. But not necessarily in the same story.

In The Lord of the Rings there are hundreds of "guns" hanging at the wall, which are not directly involved in this three books' story. But the reader feels that they are not only decorations. And the reader could do some research on Tolkien's work to find out about their story and importance for the characters' backgrounds. That makes the magic I believe.

Some good stories break Chekhov's Gun, but only in the same way that a good story would break any rule of storytelling, which is to say, the author knowingly breaks it in a calculated way that compensates for the known deficiencies that would otherwise exist as a result of not following the rule.

It in no way follows, as you're suggesting, that Chekhov's Gun is some arbitrary inconvenience, or that you can gleefully ignore the amount of detail you introduce relative to the interesting bits, which is what a real rejection of Chekhov's Gun would entail.

Your purported counterexample recognizes as much: that yes, it's detail that doesn't have a shocking payoff, but which was still accomplishing something and which Tolkien certainly weighed against the "cost" of continuing said detail arbitrarily deep.

It really is an anti-pattern to equate, "oh yeah in some circumstances it's okay to break this rule" with "you will write a better story by completely ignoring all constraints of this rule".

> It really is an anti-pattern to equate, "oh yeah in some circumstances it's okay to break this rule" with "you will write a better story by completely ignoring all constraints of this rule".

I really don't think I said that, at all:

> Mindlessly following Chekhov's Gun...

> ... if you religiously follow the principle.

The takeaway should be that the principle, like all principles, is not universal, and isn't appropriate at all times. Nuance and consideration should be part of writing.

If you've stripped a story down to the bare basics, all you're left with is predictability that gives the reader an easy ride.

I think you'd have a hard time finding a Chekhov short story that you can dismiss as an 'easy ride' or 'pulp fiction' and many of them are very, very short.

I hated The Hobbit for its endless descriptions that, for me, only evoked boredom, so I wouldn't use it as a good example. The meadows were very green, the forests wre very dark, and the spiders were very large, yes! I know! Get on with it ffs...

I liked the descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes in Jonathan Franzen novels. They have the earnest and surreal feel of a diorama in a museum. I like dioramas for some reason.

spoiler alert

My personal favorite is how in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the "gun" is a dog.

Also, sometimes entire movies are made about some of these "inconsequential" details much later. If a gun appears in scene one, but only goes off in the sequel, are we in violation of this rule?

The tiny ring of invisibility which Bilbo uses as a plot devise to escape a few times, turns out in Lord of the Rings to be the most important artifact in Middle Earth.

About as Chekhov's Gun as it gets.

I wouldn't say that leaving frequent references to the depth and age of the world, and then filling in the Legendaria in note form for the rest of your life, is much related to this concept. If a sword hanging on the wall belonged to an ancient hero, already dead, and known to everyone in the scene, a paragraph with "Here is hung Such-and-such, the bright blade of so and so with which he did $mighty-deed" doesn't have to carry any more weight in the story. There might be a whole book or chapter about so and so, there might not be.

fwiw, Tolkien wrote the trilogy only after fans requested an encore of The Hobbit. The ring's importance/malevolence was a retcon.

The tiny ring is not the only detail in that book. Checkov gun is that everything must have purpose, not that a thing with purpose exists somewhere inside.

Alexandre Dumas did, and his stories are among the best there are.

Did he? Cause his original version does not have only purposeful things in it. Like detailed descriptions of evens in tavern that have nothing to do with later developments whatsoever.

It makes somewhat more concrete sense when you take into account the startling brevity of some of Chekhov's own work. I don't think you have to agree with the notion as some universal literary principle to appreciate he was a consummate and successful adherent to his own advice.

I think it's kind of strange that people interpret this as a trope/rule/device. It's really just advice from Chekhov.

In the movie Fargo, there is a substory where Marge Gunderson, the female police officer, meets with a highschool class mate Mike Yanagita. They eat dinner and he makes a romantic advance, and she leaves. This substory never made sense to me within the general plot of the movie. Should Chekhov's gun have been used, or did this episode play a part that I have not realized?

When Marge finds out from her friend that nice guy Mike is actually an unstable liar, she starts to question whether the “nice” Jerry might have similar secrets

Another theory is that the scene was included to support the impression that this is a "true story":


> the movie says, ‘This is a true story.’ They put it in there because it ‘happened.’

Ok, I never realized that. I think I need to see it again ...

There's probably slightly more to this. When I was 10 years old my family moved from Chicago to a small town in Wisconsin. My dad commuted to the city four days a week and we still maintained many connections to Chicago. This town was about 90 minutes from Chicago (in the Midwest we don't measure travel in distance units, we use time). To this day I have friends in this town that literally haven't (ever) removed their keys from their car and leave it unlocked. People also leave the doors to their homes unlocked for extended periods of time. I imagine Brainerd was/is very much the same.

Growing up I had many, many interactions with people who were amazed that not only did my dad travel to Chicago 4x a week, my entire family visited Chicago at least once a month. The reaction in this small town was something like "Wow, you went to CHICAGO last weekend!?!"

Many of these people had never been to the world-class city that was 90 minutes away and easily accessible. Especially now, with the various high profile news stories coming out of Chicago (two police officers shot in the head in the last month[0], lots of gun violence, etc) the fear of "the big city" is pervasive (and somewhat understandably so). Many people view "the big city" as inherently vicious, wicked, evil, etc and again, somewhat understandably so (from their perspective) especially considering other random acts of violence [1]. That said, having never been there Chicago seems so distant and otherwordly that it might as well be Kabul. Many people (quite literally) view Chicago as a war zone. Needless to say, violence and crime to this level are (essentially) complete unheard of in small town life.

I think the trip to Minneapolis to visit an old classmate reminded Marge of the "wickedness" and "evil" that exists in the world and caused her to reframe her thinking and approach to people and what they are capable of even though she had just seen the bodies of multiple people who had been murdered. Especially considering that even as a police officer Mike was able to successfully hide the darker portions of his life from Marge in their brief interaction even though most people would know immediately that something wasn't right with him. Marge likely had a realization that her "small town" perspective (and resulting approach to interviews, investigation, etc) needed to be re-framed. This can be seen in her subsequent interview with Jerry where she is much more aggressive and skeptical.

[0] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-2-officers-s...

[1] https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/chase-bank-teller-stab...

Here is the scene of that interview. That is some stellar acting!


Never realized and I’ve probably seen this movie 100 times. I suspect there may have been a little scene that connected the two more explicitly but may have been cut. Great information - I’ll go to Pancakes House now.

I recall an instance when I was doing improv classes where we were doing freeform scenes with a partner with a given input. When the scene began, I tried to engage with my scene partner, but she kept saying 'leave me' in response to anything I said. After giving it three chances, I exited stage left, end scene.

Our instructor then explained the scene with, "anytime something is talked about three times in a scene or play, it pretty much is immediately invoked into being."

Nothing was better for me in helping me understand the art of storytelling than the 6 months or so I spent there. You hear about the 'rules of stories' and whatnot, but it's not until I was up on stage, grappling with it, that that whole world started opening up. I don't know anything better other than actually studying it in school.

Ignoring the rules just makes for harder-to-watch scenes, you just can't make sense of the why.

George Saunders' A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life[1] is highly recommended. I thought I had a good idea of how to read a short story before reading this book. I was wrong. Saunders (with the help of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) show how it's done - and in so doing also show how to write a short story.

[1] https://www.georgesaundersbooks.com/books/a-swim-in-a-pond-i...

Also in “Russian guns” category: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alekhine%27s_gun

Good luck applying this to the "Lost" series!

Or last two seasons of Game of Thrones.

They were serial offenders.

I think Chekov's gun should be read more as a "don't give things a heightened importance if they don't turn out to be important for the situation".

What is very bad advice is: "if you show a gun it has to be used". If every gun ever shown in any film was used wouldn't this destroy the tension? Also guns can take on different functions within stories than just a device to kill. They can tell us something about the protagonist (how do they react to the presence of a gun), they can underline powerful moments (e.g. throwing away a gun in a though situation because the character gives up etc).

Functionalizing every element of a story is a good way to rob it of any life. In art a lot of elements work in different, more complex ways than just a functional causal relationship. Think about gazes in paintings etc. Things just signifying themselves and expressing a general mood can be immensly powerful.

Twin Peaks, season 3 is the antithesis of Chekhov’s Gun. So many false starts and seemingly meaningless dead ends. That said, it feels like art, and if your willing to take it as such, it’s a fun ride. Tightly focused narrative is a reasonable default but certainly not a hard and fast rule.

They seem like points to a season 4 to me

How many Trekkies were clickbaited here?

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

Reality is full of false promises. So why not in fiction as well, Mr. Chekhov?

Why does an author owe his readers consistency or coherence? Make it Lynchian. People love to puzzle over mysteries.

Just sell it as one.As a mystery. They'll build in the wrong and unnecessary parts themselves.

Especially mysteries need to be coherent and consistent, otherwise the audience will just feel cheated. In a mystery every detail matter.

> Reality is full of false promises. So why not in fiction as well, Mr. Chekhov?

Well, as Mark Twain said: It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.

Of course a false promise is fine, as long as you subvert the expectations with something more interesting. But just adding details with no purpose is bad writing.

> People love to puzzle over mysteries.

It's a mixed bag. Lost was a Rorschach test for which side a person falls on: some loved the unresolved mysteries and made, others got tired of questions that never got answered and quit watching entirely because of it.

One really great example of this is coughing in films. Once someone coughs for no reason, you know they will croak by the end of the film.

1889. It's so old I don't think it's very relevant for a modern fiction author. It's older than 99.99% of popular, genre fiction. Older than the cinema, than radio, and than pulp magazines. Even Wells hadn't starting writing yet. Conan Doyle had barely started. Fiction and storytelling evolved a lot afterwards.

In a movie this doesn't work. If only the gun is important a living room would have no furniture, carpet, curtains, etc.

I think it's more like "if the camera zooms in on it or otherwise draws attention to it".

If everyone leaves the room and the camera zooms in on a piece of furniture then you would expect that piece of furniture to have some sort of importance or role to play later. If, as a character is leaving a room, a piece of trash falls out of their pocket and the camera focuses on that piece of trash then you expect that detail to be important to the plot later.

I was disappointed the Wikipedia article didn't have any counter views or criticism. Article on concepts typically do.

I thought the reference to Hemingway's mockery of the concept was a well done hint that not everyone agrees with the principle.

One of my favourite examples of this is an episode of Mad Men (mild spoiler) where at the start of an episode one of the accounts guys is riding a ride-on lawn mower through the office (new client), and at the end of the episode a drunk secretary is using it to run over someone's foot.

*edit: spelling

I often think about the same with game design, especially level design, where every object and every inch of terrain should contribute the fun / story factor.

But for creative works, any rules / razors should be mere reference, in the end it's all about senses.

As someone who constructs imagery in their head while reading for leisure, these details help maintain immersion and are anything but irrelevant. Imagine a Redwall novel without the craving inducing feasts! Are there any e.g. fantasy novels where Chekhov’s gun is applied?

In a bit of foreshadowing we saw Chekhov's Gun on the Mantel was missing.

We did a hard target search, finding a neologism, but nothing else.

It eventually turned out the MacGuffin was just a Red Herring, and the whole thing was a Shaggy Dog Story.

Unique, inconsequential details and themes immaterial to the plot line add texture and realism to a work. Otherwise, characters and scenes appear shallow, boring, and generic.

How to make stories predictable, part 12. Every time I read these rules, I get closer to understanding why professional storytelling is so often boring and predictable these days.

I wonder how much this principle holds with respect to real life stories, which is filled with irrelevant details. Of course you can render true stories to have a dramatic version.

Real life stories are never really done, any small detail can still eventually come back as a main feature.

Maybe it takes a certain fleeting frame of mind to enjoy DFW's Infinite Jest, but I enjoyed it, and half of it wouldn't be possible with Chekhov's Gun applied.

Good rule that applies well to software development. :-)

Probably applies well to many things in life

Has anyone read Infinite Jest?

The whole book feels like Chekhovs gun but it is fun to read!

(I haven't finished it)

At least in Israeli media. This principle has become a cliché quoted in countless works

Israel needs stricter Chekhov's gun control.

This seems like the antithesis of worldbuilding.

Obligatory Star Trek trivia: in "Spectre of the Gun", from the original series, Chekov finds a six-shooter pistol at the beginning of the show, making it a literal Checkhov's Gun. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectre_of_the_Gun (Warning: this was not one of the better ST-TOS shows)


Huh? Chekhov's Gun has been around for decades, not sure what "new woke Hollywood" has anything to do with it.

Camera zooms in on a pistol that someone pockets. Therefore, that pistol will be used later.

It happens in nearly every movie made since the 60s.

The principle is older that Hollywood itself, so I don't know what it has to do with "new woke"?

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