Fiction Friday: Chekhov’s Gun and a writing prompt for you:

What is Chekhov’s gun? One of the oldest tricks in the book, really. Nearly every good piece of literature holds a “gun” in some sense.

You see, Chekhov wrote that if you put a gun on the table in the first act of the play, it should be fired in the third act. It’s a seemingly innocuous or insignificant detail that links one scene to another, or becomes extremely significant later on in the story. It’s a way to add depth and complexity to a plot without really thinking about it.

Book series usually employ this, as well as television shows, to link books/episodes together, and to make the audience pay attention to the details. When we as an audience are compelled to read each sentence of detail carefully, we usually enjoy the book more. Take, for example, the Harry Potter series. Do you remember any examples of Chekhov’s gun in those books? Because I sure do. Scabbers the rat shows up in The Sorcerer’s Stone, first when Ron tries to turn him yellow. But the spell doesn’t work. We assume it is because Ron has not mastered magic yet, but later on when it’s revealed that Scabbers was really a criminal in hiding, we realize that Ron didn’t mess up; the spell didn’t work because it was intended for rats and not humans disguised as animals. In the second book, JK Rowling shows us the sword of Gryffindor, which is the only thing powerful enough to kill the giant Basilisk. But then we don’t hear much about the sword until the last book, when she reveals that the sword, now infused with Basilisk poison, is one of the only things that is strong enough to destroy Horcruxes. And these are just two examples! It’s what made the books so maddeningly good; because it’s a mix of dramatic irony on behalf of the characters, and it empowers us as readers when we are able to recall these details ourselves and put together the string of events on our own; as such, it draws us into the story as participants alongside with Harry Potter and friends, and makes us feel like we are important to the story. And that’s what makes good reading.

Tv shows and movie trilogies use this as well. We could talk about every episode ever of LOST, which uses this in practically every episode, but I will not do that. Instead, take the ever popular Pirates of the Caribbean series: the coins that serve as a miniscule part of Captain Sparrow’s elegant/shabby attire becomes hugely important in the third movie when we realize that it’s his talisman for inclusion in the meeting of the Pirate Lords (God how cool would it be to be a PIRATE LORD?????). Anyhow, it’s a seemingly innocuous detail we see constantly, and only becomes important for a very specific scene. Once again, it introduces plot complexity and characterization; is it his outlandish sense of pride and danger that makes Captain Sparrow wear his “piece of eight” out in the open on the side of his head? Is it part of pirate practice to wear this as identification out in the open, like the sparrow tattoo on the inside of his wrist? We can only wonder, but all in all it makes Johnny Depp look way cool.

So now, we have two prime examples of Chekhov’s gun. What are we going to do with them? Obviously, think of interesting ways to start using them in our creative writing to add depth and complexity. So how do we do so? We could go the JK Rowling route, which means coming up with the whole damn thing in your head before ever writing it down. Or you could look back at previous chapters, find the little details (or insert them yourself) for use in the future. You can always try to include something mundane and yet useable in every setting, so that in the future when you need a plot device, you can always review the previous scenes. How you plan it is your choice. But now, to conclude, let’s try a writing exercise in which you make your own Chekhov’s gun.

What is the first object to your left? That is now your Chekhov’s gun. Now, write a scene in which you are sitting at your computer (like you are now), and describe your settings. Include your Chekhov’s gun but don’t dwell on it. Create a scene in which you’re doing something interesting. And now here’s the creative part: add some sort of sudden catastrophe: the zombie apocalypse finally arrives, there’s a hurricane, a murderer breaks into your house, etc. Now, how are you going to use that object to save yourself?

Congrats; you have successful used a very simple, very miniature Chekhov’s gun. Now include it in all of your future writing!

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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