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Never Underestimate Chekhov's Gun

Known as one of the greatest short story writers in history, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Russian physician, playwright and short-story writer once wrote in a letter to a friend, Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. Also among his letters is the principle now referred to as "Chekhov's gun"—a writing concept he brought up multiple times throughout his extensive correspondence.

This version of it is noted in Bill Valentine's Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.

Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom

In a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky) written on November 1, 1889, Chekhov wrote, 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.

So, what is Chekov's gun?

Chekov's gun is the concept that a writer's focus on objects, details or locations should have future significance in the story. This doesn't mean that every single object needs to have significance, however. It just means that if you point it out and encourage your reader's mind to dwell on it, there should be a reason for doing so. Now Novel explains it like this:

The lesson behind Chekhov's gun is that your story should be cohesive. Each part should contribute to the whole in a way that makes sense. It does not mean that every single plot point of your story must be hugely significant. Some story elements function to create mood or describe the setting. Yet each part of your story should correspond to the whole in at least a tangential way.

For example, if your character has a limp, there should be a backstory that is significant for character building. Don't simply give him a limp and not explain to your reader why he has it. Another example would be focusing on and describing a character's vivid dreams. Unless something significant will happen in one of those dreams that affects the character's choices further in the plot, or unless you're using it to foreshadow a future event, don't focus your writing on the dreams.

Unless your character's vivid dreams play a role in the plot, don't focus on describing them.
Unless your character's vivid dreams play a role in the plot, don't focus on describing them. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.

Does it mean that every single detail needs to be significant?

Chekov wasn't saying that every detail you include needs to be significant to the storyline. There are obviously times when you'll describe a location with details that create setting and mood, or write characters who engage in small talk that isn't some great plot twist.

Here's an example:

Let's say you're writing a scene in which a character smokes a pipe. That pipe could simply be part of your choice in characterization and doesn't necessarily need to hold any special significance beyond that. However, if you focus your writing on the details of that pipe, or use an entire page or more to describe how your character languidly smokes it, that pipe should be significant to the story. It should hold special significance in your character's past or future.

Another example is if two of your characters are leaning in for a passionate kiss and interrupted by a loud alarm that goes off nearby, you've allowed that alarm to affect the plot. In doing so, you need to provide further explanation at some point before the end as to why you've done this. Is the alarm perhaps a metaphor warning the character that the kiss would lead to a toxic relationship? Did something happen down the street that would later affect the characters in some significant way beyond interrupting a romantic moment?

Chekov's gun on television

Fans of the hit ABC show Lost, which first aired on September 22, 2004, understand firsthand how important Chekov's gun is, whether on page, stage, or screen. After the final episode, which aired on May 23, 2010, many fans experienced feelings ranging from disappointment to disbelief to outright anger. For six years, they had been taken on a wild, engrossing science fiction journey involving time travel, parallel universes, ancient civilizations, and scientific experiments, only to be left at the end with multiple questions still unanswered. Much of this confusion had to do with the show's writers offering up lots of seemingly significant objects, characters, and events—only to leave those elements unexplained by the end.

For example, this reviewer on Den of Geek writes:

My main fear was that the writers themselves never knew [what was going on], and had been content to roll along, episode to episode, season to season, chucking out twists hither and thither without any creative masterplan to guide them. I could imagine the scene in the writers' room: 'Hey, this new twist'll be cool. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and I don't know how we'll write ourselves out of it, but people will be surprised, and that's the main thing, isn't it? If viewers start to question how ridiculous it is, we'll just come up with something even more messed up and unbelievable to distract them from the first thing, and then repeat that formula until we get cancelled, or we all just decide to violently murder each other using ball-point pens.

Den of Geek

This review is a good example of why readers are frustrated when authors point to seemingly significant things that turn out to be not so important after all. When audiences invest their time, energy, and emotions into a work—whether that be a book, TV series, movie, or play—they don't what to feel like their time is wasted. So, if you're going to have a gun in the first act, make sure it's shot by the end of the third act. Otherwise, don't point out the gun at all.

Lost is a show that has been faulted for not following the rules of Chekov's Gun
A screenshot of Mr. Echo and the smoke monster from Lost, a show often faulted for not following the rules of Chekov's Gun.

When Chekov's gun is actually a Red Herring

Mystery, thriller, and crime novelists use a device known as a Red Herring to throw the reader off track for a greater surprise effect when the "big reveal" occurs. According to, a good example of a Red Herring in a popular work is the character of Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown's novel Da Vinci Code:

Bishop Aringarosa serves as an example of a red herring throughout the novel. The character is presented in such a way that the readers suspect him to be the mastermind of the whole conspiracy in the church.

Later, it is revealed that he is innocent. This example of a red herring in the novel distracts the readers from who the real bad guy is, and thus adds to the mystery of the story. Interestingly, the Italian surname of the bishop "Aringarosa" translates in English as "red herring."

The differences between foreshadowing and Chekov's gun

Let's go back to Chekhov's gun and re-examine what he said about it. Basically, if you mention a gun in chapter one, by the end of the novel, that gun needs to be shot. With this explanation in mind, you might recognize another often-used literary device that has a similar idea—foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing, on the other hand, is a literary device that involves using words, phrases, objects, or characters to hint to the reader about what will happen later in the story. However, the important thing to note about foreshadowing is it is only a small hint—barely perceptible so as not to give away too much of the storyline. Chekov's gun is drawing attention to something in a more obvious way. So, the difference lies in the degree to which you emphasize the object, person, or ability.

Essentially, think of Chekov's gun as a promise between you (the writer) and your readers that this thing you're mentioning will have significance at some point in the story. It's a pledge.

Foreshadowing is a hint, and perhaps one that is so subtle that your reader won't notice it until the final reveal happens and all the plot twists have taken place.

Tips for writers to apply Chekov's gun to your own writing

If you've been adequately convinced that Chekov's gun makes sense, here are a few tips to apply this same principle to your own writing.

  • Create a scene list, containing each scene's plot points, character goals, action to advance the plot, and action to increase the tension. This article on 8 ways to create a scene list is a great resource that details the exact steps to take to make a scene list happen. Having a scene list will help you determine if there are unnecessary elements that were included in one chapter and don't return in future chapters as significant plot points.
  • Read through your draft of each chapter and make sure that any focus you've given to objects, characters, or traits is fleshed out in future chapters.
  • Above all, keep the unspoken promise to your reader that in exchange for their time and emotions, you won't lead them down a dead-end path in any part of your storytelling.
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