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November 20, 2021

Screenwriting 101: What Is Chekov's Gun?

In short, Chekhov's Gun is a narrative theory that posits that no detail in a narrative should be extraneous to the story.

It's a concept that every screenwriter should be familiar with, as screenwriting is a craft that demands narrative efficiency.

Where did Chekhov's Gun come from?

The origin of Chekhov's Gun came from 19th-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. While he may not have officially coined the term, it has been confirmed in his letters that he was a big proponent of the idea. To one fellow writer, he wrote, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

This idea is noticeable in much of his work, particularly in The Seagull, where a character carries a rifle at the beginning of the play and uses the same gun to commit suicide. Chekhov really understood how to end a story.

Analyzing Chekhov's Gun

While the term has come to be known as Chekhov's gun, it can apply to anything of significance, be it a prop, wardrobe, location...really any detail to the story. Chekhov used the example of a rifle in his letters but prefaced his example with this suggestion to another writer: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story."

While the idea of Chekhov's gun has become nearly synonymous with the concept of foreshadowing, it isn't necessarily about planting clues for future payoffs. The core of the idea is that if an element is unnecessary to the story, it does not deserve to be featured in the narrative. Many of these details become essential to the plot, but it's also ok if they're only relevant to the story. (If you want to examine the difference, check out Plot vs. Story.)

It takes a tremendous amount of effort to put something on the screen. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the audience knows this. If something is being shown, it must be important. So even if the gun doesn't come back later in the story, it should've been essential to the narrative at that time. If it wasn't, then Chekhov might say that you were wasting the audience's time with that detail.

For a thoughtful analysis of Chekhov's Gun in action, check out this video:

Examples of Chekhov's Gun

Most well-written stories will have Chekhov's gun examples in their narrative, but there are some well-known ones.

  • The glasses of water in Signs
  • The exploding gum in Mission: Impossible
  • Nearly any gadget introduced by Q in the James Bond films

WhatCulture has presented what it believes are the 10 Best Examples of Movies with Chekhov's Gun. How many of these do you agree with?

Implementing Chekhov's Gun In Your Own Writing

As you're looking at the theory of Chekhov's Gun in your own work, it isn't so much about putting details in that are relevant later but making sure that the details you have in your script are indeed relevant to the story.

While these details can be determined in the structure or the outline, I think about them later. I go back in later drafts and review to make sure that more information is meaningful. If they are not, then I do one of two things. Usually, I remove them, but if I particularly like this detail and want to keep it, I make it meaningful.

However you implement the concept, remember that it can be anything you want.

What Is Your Chekov's Gun?

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Screenwriting 101: What Is Chekov's Gun?
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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