Chekhov’s Gun (and Its Lesser Known Variations)
Conceptualizing payoff and delayed gratification
An old cliché like Chekhov’s Gun will never fully describe the infinite dimensions and nuance involved in crafting a story’s pacing or payoff.
Still, if we’re willing to take the time and dig a bit deeper to understand the concepts behind this common piece of wisdom, we can derive principles that are far more helpful in informing our own writing.
The original statement
If a gun is placed on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired in the third.
The gun in the classic aphorism is the instrument of a significant plot event, the firing of the gun is the event itself, and placing the gun on the mantle refers to the set-up required to position the story prior to the plot event.
As a whole, what the phrase really warns against are so-called false promises in stories.
Readers like being rewarded, they like being right, and they like feeling smart. If they notice some pattern in a story or an element or prop being hinted at again and again, they’re going to want it to be important, if only for the sweet satisfaction of “totally calling it”.
Readers are therefore prone to being disappointed if they don’t feel compensated for the extra attention they paid to the story. This disappointment only stands to be exaggerated when hints, arcs, and plot threads are just straight up dropped near the end, never to be heard from again.
But not all symbolism is foreshadowing, and not all readers get the answers right. How does a writer minimize this disappointment when they need to go against what the reader might demand the writer make important?
The answer lies in an author’s purposefulness: by writing with clarity and confidence, the reader’s attention can be directed away from false positives, fake Chekov’s Guns, and towards the point the author is actually trying to make. The reader is less able to feel disappointed if it’s clear there was always another path the author intended them to explore.
If a gun is fired in the third act, it must have been placed on the mantle in the first act.
The converse of Chekhov’s Gun is essentially the assertion that plot points can’t come out of nowhere. They have to be built up beforehand.
Another way to understand this rule: anything important to the story has to be seen at least once before its role in the climax.
Readers like to be surprised, but there’s a stark difference between surprising writing and nonsensical writing. That difference is taking the time to set up your plot points and thematic moments well in advance.
If a gun must not be fired in the third act, it need not be placed on the mantle in the first.
Chekhov’s Gun does not pertain to every last detail of a story. It does not even pertain to the entire plot of the story. It deals only with key aspects of the plot. So don’t waste time putting toy guns or show guns or finger guns on the mantle. That is, don’t treat tertiary details and setting information like they’re plot points that need to be set up. They can just be introduced as the story needs them.
When I wrote my first book draft, I was prone to putting out way too much detail intoo early. I had a protagonist with a ton of issues living in a rather complicated dystopian set-up, and I felt like if all of that wasn’t on the first few pages, the reader would never get it.
Ironically, in doing so, I actually broke the converse of Chekhov’s Gun quite often. I got caught up in explaining so many little details that could just as easily have come up in the course of the story. Meanwhile, important aspects of my protagonist never felt like they got properly introduced.
The zeroth corollary
Don’t place a gun on the mantle in the third act.
The tail end of the story is really not the place to be introducing completely new ideas to the reader. No new mechanics, no new rules, no new majorly important characters. The end is for wrapping up what the other parts of the story have been building up to.
In my family’s home, I’ve got a refrigerator (like most families, I’d guess). And on that fridge is a magnet I made in kindergarten. I wrote my full name on it, but I started out making the letters to big. The letters on the magnet just get smaller and smaller as my childhood self realized he was running out of room.
When you introduce new crap to the story this late, that’s exactly how it feels. It feels to the reader like the author never knew what they were doing, and now they need to quickly add this new thing to make up for it.
It’s okay not to plan a story from the beginning. It’s not okay for a story to feel unplanned from the beginning.
The first corollary
Guns placed on mantles in the first act are free to misfire in the third.
Foreshadowing an event is a pretty basic skill a writer can have in their tool belt. What takes a bit more craft to accomplish, however, is to foreshadow an event but deliver it with a twist.
If the twist to the foreshadowed event is too large, the writer will end up breaking the zeroth corollary of Chekhov’s Gun, introducing some new element far too late in the story. But if the twist is too narrow, it will exist within the realm of reader expectations and thus can hardly be considered a twist at all.
It’s important to note that when a gun misfires, the misfire in and of itself is also a gun that needs to be placed on the mantle in the first act. Misfiring a gun is mechanically two guns, the second just one more hidden and subtle, interacting in an unexpected way right at the climax.
Allowing your foreshadowing to go awry, allowing your guns to misfire, can if done right bring a level of intensity to a story’s ending that’s hard to achieve if a writer plays with all their cards face up.
The second corollary
If a gun is placed on the mantle in the first act, it is possible to fire it in the second act, so long as a cannon is shot in the third.
You ever watch a TV show where they catch the bad guy, high five, and everyone pats themselves on the back for a job well done, only for you to realize there are still twenty minutes left in the episode? Or pick up a mystery novel when they throw who did it in prison, only for there to be 100 pages left in the book? How did those situations make you feel?
Firing your gun earlier than the reader expects is a natural way of creating tension. The reader fears that, with the story wrapped up so early, something is about to go horribly wrong.
What not to do in this situation is to refuse to raise the stakes. If you’ve ever read an otherwise decent book with a long, boring ending that never seemed to know when to stop, chances are it’s because the author fired his gun too early and didn’t realize it.
If you’re firing your gun earlier than your readers would expect, there are two things to do: start a new arc or introduce a bigger threat.
Starting brand new arcs in the last part of the story is something that works better in whole book series' or TV shows, and not as well in single stories. However, it can be done in single books well. The idea is to use the clean slate of the finished story to deliver second story that builds on and compliments the themes of the first. Again, building a second arc completely detached from the events of the first would violate the zeroth corollary.
The second way, introducing a larger threat, is the more straightforward way of resolving overeager Chekhov’s Guns. Maybe your research team cured the deadly virus, but the cure had unforeseen side effects that put even more lives at risk. Maybe your cop catches the bank robber, but it turns out he had an accomplice who’s even worse. Maybe your superhero defeats the villain, but his doomsday device is already counting down.
Whatever it is, it has to be something even more exciting or intense or emotional than what was first promised from the story. Writers should strive to give readers more than what they bargained for, not less.
A story does not have to be perfect to leave a good first impression, it just has to be better than expected.