For any who are not familiar with the term, “Chekhov’s gun” is a literary term referring to objects mentioned in fiction. The principle, coined by Anton Chekhov, stipulates that if an object is mentioned, it must become directly relevant to the plot. While this is a valid principle, it can sometimes lead to sloppy writing, with writers giving away obvious plot points by drawing excessive attention to seemingly useless objects. As an example, suppose you are writing a murder mystery novel and a major point of the plot hinges on someone eventually hiding behind the drapes. A lengthy, seemingly unattached description of the drapes will instantly arouse suspicion in the reader’s mind, shattering the plot twist. The challenge then, is to relay pertinent information, or “display the gun” if you will without giving away major plot points. Here are six tips for successfully using Chekhov’s gun principle (for the sake of example, we will use an actual gun in each example):
A Related Story
Having a character relate a personal story, (essentially a ‘tale within a tale’) can be a great way to slip in important information. If Colonel Sideburn randomly points to a gun on the wall and starts talking about it, the reader will spot an information plant a mile away. If the Colonel is known for telling long rambling stories, however, and happens to mention the gun in one of them, this is much less likely to arouse suspicion.
Work it into an Argument
Arguments between characters are a great way to seamlessly relay information. Focus is drawn so tightly to the interpersonal conflict that red flags are less likely to fly if the gun is mentioned in the heat of the moment. Observe these two examples:
“Cool gun, Joe.”
“Yeah, Tim. I always keep it here in this unlocked drawer where any of the seven guests I invited tonight could get to it.”
“You’re always doing something stupid, Joe! Remember when you pulled your gun on the guy you said was mugging that old woman?”
“I thought he was grabbing her purse.”
“He was helping her across the street! Wasn’t the boy scout uniform a clue?!”
Although both of these examples are somewhat ludicrous, you can see that slipping information in the middle of an argument can be much more effective than a simple information dumping conversation.
Hide it Amongst Other Details
Objects are less likely noticed when they are placed in the accompaniment of other objects. The mind, when presented with an assortment of stimuli tends to group things together rather than notice each individually. Suppose a character is described as casually walking around a parlor, noticing his hosts many collections of artifacts including books, stuffed animals, antique firearms, and PEZ dispensers. Chekhov’s gun, rather than standing out like a sore thumb, finds itself neatly tucked away amidst a collection of other details.
Make it a Joke
One of the underlying principles of Chekhov’s gun is that everything exists for a reason. Readers have grown accustomed to this principle, leaving them with a subconscious checklist, waiting to explain away the details with which they are presented. The idea of an object existing solely as the brunt of a joke is perfectly logical. Take a look at this example below:
Tod glanced behind the counter and chuckled as he saw old man Peterson’s Colt .45 nestled beneath a pile of old newspapers. Apparently, no one had bothered to tell the old man that Capone and his gang had been cleared out a few decades ago.
To most readers, the mention of the gun is explained away as soon as it is introduced. Peterson’s possession of the firearm seems to simply help portray him as an overly suspicious man who hasn’t adjusted to modern times.
Make it So Obvious No One Sees it Coming
This rather sneaky tactic plays right into reader’s expectations, then turns the tables on them. Details that are later revealed to be major plot points are often partly concealed, like in the examples mentioned above, in order to allay suspicion. This approach flies in the face of these strategies, bringing up the same detail over and over again until it becomes essentially a running gag. The concept is equivalent to waving Chekov’s gun in the reader’s face rather than hiding it in a drawer, the idea being that the audience will dismiss so obvious a detail as a red herring.
Finally, an excellent way to introduce Chekov’s gun is with a little bit of misdirection. Let the reader feel that they have “figured it out”, then when the time is right, turn the tables in one dramatic, “double twist.” Mention the gun in any of the ways mentioned above, allowing the audience to begin to suspect it will eventually be used to bump off the lord of the manor, then later, as the scene builds up to a climax, send a wrecking ball through the wall that finishes off the lord, revealing the gun to be nothing more than a clever sleight of hand.
Relaying information discreetly can be a tough endeavor. The more people read, the more accustomed they become to certain trends, making plot twists concepts like Chekov’s gun even more difficult. Rather than viewing this as an obstacle however, you should see it as a challenge to improve your own writing skills. Hopefully these tips will help in your future writing endeavors. Be sure to like and share if you agree with these pointers, and as always, thanks for stopping by!
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, hiking, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.