Chekhov’s Gun

18 Jan

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.

-Anton Chekhov, from S. Shchukin’s Memoirs, 1911

It’s a quote I think of often when I’m writing or reading, or watching a TV show or movie.  If the camera lingers a second or two too long on an object, or the characters take an extra moment to talk about something that on its surface is irrelevant to the current plot, I wonder when and how it will become important later on.  I made a bit of a drinking game out of it when we watched the train wreck of storytelling that was Avatar. (Yes, it was pretty to look at.  That did not make up for the cardboard characters and predictability of the plot.)

The James Bond films use the technique all the time — Q shows Bond new gadgets early on, and by the final act, 007’s whipping them out to fight the villains.

I prefer it when they’re inserted subtly — enough that I can remember the item’s mention or appearance on reflection, but not so in-your-face that I’m calling its remergence two hours ahead of time.

The quote, of course, doesn’t have to refer to an actual gun.  MacGyver disarmed a bomb with hockey tickets that were in his grandfather’s pocket.  (The disarming itself starts at the 6:55 mark, but if you want some martial arts and wild ’80s fashion, watch the whole thing):

My favorite example of it is a bit of a longer-term example, from J.K. Rowling.  Chekhov talks in terms of chapters or acts, but the principle also works over the course of a series.  In the very first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid arrives on a flying motorcycle to deliver Harry to Professor Dumbledore:

“Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, sounding relieved.  “At last.  And where did you get that motorcycle?”

“Borrowed it, Professor Dumbledore, sir,” said the giant, climbing carefully off the motorcycle as he spoke.  “Young Sirius Black lent it to me.”

Sirius isn’t mentioned again until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When I read the third book and his name was splashed across the headlines, I knew I’d seen it before somewhere.  I didn’t go searching until after I’d finished, but when I did, I was damned impressed.  Hagrid flies in on Sirius’ motorcycle on page fourteen of book one.

Now, you could argue that it’s backstory or foreshadowing, or simply a little breadcrumb trail of neat things, but Rowling is a bit of a master at planting seemingly-innocuous details that become important plot points later on.  The bigger guns in PoA are the early mentions of the Whomping Willow, the Shrieking Shack, and Harry’s Patronus Charm.  There’s a whole long list of them over at TV Tropes, if you’re not doing anything else for the next few hours.

When I’m writing, I’m often weighing what needs to be mentioned, and how that ought to manifest.  I’m not generally a fan of deus ex machina in stories, so if I know I have a plot point coming up where a character uses something unusual to get out of a situation, I look for where I might be able to bring it up beforehand.  Without, of course, putting it in big flashing lights when it first appears.

Do you notice those rifles above the mantelpiece when you’re reading or watching?  Hop into the comments and share examples of ones that have done it well or made you groan with their obviousness!


2 Responses to “Chekhov’s Gun”

  1. Claire January 18, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    So true about JK Rowling. There were countless times reading her books where I thought, “Now why do I remember that…”


  1. Plot Devices: Foreshadowing and Red Herrings « Seven Deadly Divas - May 29, 2011

    […] this book.  Remember when we talked about Chekhov’s Gun?  I mentioned my penchant for catching the not-really-throwaway lines and the camera angles that […]

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