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Chekhovs Gun: is it time to take it off the mantelpiece?

CHEKHOVS GUN Chekhovs Gun: is it time to take it off the mantelpiece?

The concept of Chekhovs Gun is familiar to most of us (yes, even those of us who live in Australia, a country known for its strict gun laws), and is widely regarded as a fine principle for writers to follow. The principle is usually described as something along the lines of: if theres a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it should go off by the final act.

The principle is basically pointing out that things in books should exist for a reason (unless, of course, youre reading a cozy mystery novel, and the useless gun in question is merely a red herring, which I suppose serves a purpose of its own), and that the audience has certain expectations that if theyre told that something is of importance, then it should well be.

However, when I think of Chekhovs Gun, I think primarily of the play, which is a vastly different medium from the novel. A play is far more concise, for one, and due to limits of time, space, and visibility, theres a need for a good deal of precision in order to remain effective. If we take Chekhovs Gun in the literal sense, well, there are a finite number of props that can be a) on stage b) visible on stage and c) capable of playing a functional role. Therefore, the number of gun-like things that can be tossed into a play are quite limited.

A novel on the other hand, is a different beast altogether, and I think that one of the problems Ive been coming across in the books Ive been reading is that the Chekhovs Gun principle is being applied in a way that may not necessarily be appropriate for this medium.

Not everything is a gun

The first issue is that Im finding that authors seem to be worried about their words not playing enough of a function in the wider narrative. The way of dealing with this problems seems to be to go through the book, pick out something that that exhibits Chekhovs Gun-like attributes, and ensure that it goes off (in whatever way is deemed appropriate) by the end of the story. The problem with this is that where Chekhov had one gun, Im going cross-eyed reading stories that have forty. I promise that if Chekhovs characters had a rack of artillery sitting in their lounge room, they could easily enough make a point with just one or two of their collectionto stretch the metaphor a little further, not everything needs to be blown up or shot! Shooting off every possible gun in a story makes for an ending thats too tidy, too neat, and in the end, unrealistic (particularly if you need to write a sequel, kiddos).

Not every story needs a gun

Further to the above point, a related issue Im coming across with increasing frequency in my reading is the circular narrative. To me, this seems to be stemming from the perceived need'for a Chekhovs gun (or, as above, the application of Gun-ness to a certain plot point or element). In a book I recently reviewed, the book opens with the main character being stung by bees, and closes with the character being attacked byyou guessed it, a swarm of bees. While I appreciate the symmetry and evenness here, its hard not to see this kind of circularity is being contrived. Its the sort of thing that I could see working in a play, but that doesnt work so well in a novel. Prologues, too, are applied in a similar mannerI often wonder whether these are whacked on to the books beginning at a stage quite late during the editing process in an attempt to provide a frame of reference for what occurs towards the end of the book.

Guns shoot stuff

One of the things about guns is that theyre fairly predictable in what they do: their principal function, other than hanging out on Chekhovs wall, is to kill and maim. The problem is that when a Chekhovs Gun element is highlighted to the reader, the reader (because todays readers are pretty savvy) knows right away what its function is (caveat: see earlier comment regarding red herrings). Authors who adhere'too'strictly to the Chekhovs Gun rule may find that rather than elegance and foreshadowing, theyre serving up predictability instead. Why not opt for a Maguffin instead? (It does, after all, have a much tastier sounding name.)

Gun law enforcement

So, while Im all for the right to bear arms in the form of Chekhovs Gun, Im also a proponent of safe, controlled gun use. Not everyone needs a gun; certainly not everyone needs multiple guns; and not all of those guns should be blowing stuff up.


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  1. Thats a very interesting post.

  2. An interesting theory Stephanie though I have never heard of Chekovs Gun. I do understand what you mean though I think it is a fine line between a subtle foreshadowing and a spoiler of what is to come, personally I prefer the subtlety