Using Chekhov’s Gun
Chekhov’s Gun is a phrase commonly used to describe something you hide in your story and come back to later. It comes from a quote by Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, who some claim was the greatest short story writer in history.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
The basis for the concept is fairly simple: if you hide a gun amongst the set, it must be fired in the play. The gun Chekhov was referring to was not necessarily a literal rifle, but more a figurative concept. He mentioned the hidden gun on several occasions, each time using it to represent a different part of a play or story he was critiquing.
The principle of Chekhov’s gun can be applied to any story, in any setting, by any writer. It is both broad and specific, and is almost universally applied subconsciously in the first instance.
To use it in its most basic format would involve you simply writing. As you write, small details will be naturally added to your text. Eventually, when you are approaching the end of your story, you look back on what you have written and find those details that have been left and not followed-up. Somewhere in your first act there will be your hidden gun. You just need to discover it, and bring it back in the third act. It is cause and effect.
You can choose to add in your own hidden guns within your writing, of course, but often these are easier to spot. The true surprises—the guns that are actually hidden, not just placed—take a lot of skill to do right.
Let’s say your protagonist has an intense fear of spiders, and throughout the narrative discovers they are battling against a shape-shifting alien. It is not difficult to surmise that the final showdown will involve the alien adopting the guise of a gigantic spider. However, there may be a throwaway comment early in the story mentioning the protagonist’s sister, who moved away some years prior. If the alien instead appeared as the sister, the protagonist will have a much harder moral choice to make, creating higher tension and a greater dilemma. The spider can still be used, just earlier instead of during the finale. Keep the true gun hidden until the end.
Chekhov’s gun can be applied to as much of your writing as you are able. Did someone leave a cup of coffee on a table? Why? How, later in the scene, will that impact upon the conversation? Did they forget to use a coaster, and therefore aggravate an already heated exchange between two characters? The hidden gun is used to both foreshadow and follow-up. Elements that come into play later need to be hidden beforehand and details that are mentioned must be there for a reason. If there is no purpose to a piece of writing, then by Chekhov’s theory it should be cut as it is unwanted padding. That’s not to say you cannot include red herrings; misleading and misdirecting your readers is a key part of maintaining tension, but the things that cause these deceptions are there on purpose. It is the irrelevant and unnecessary that Chekhov advocated removing.
To further pick apart the technique, an example would be useful. Here is a story available in the Public Domain called The Post, written by Anton Chekhov himself, which utilises several hidden guns.
Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Constance Garnett
It was three o’clock in the night. The postman, ready to set off, in his cap and his coat, with a rusty sword in his hand, was standing near the door, waiting for the driver to finish putting the mail bags into the cart which had just been brought round with three horses. The sleepy postmaster sat at his table, which was like a counter; he was filling up a form and saying:
“My nephew, the student, wants to go to the station at once. So look here, Ignatyev, let him get into the mail cart and take him with you to the station: though it is against the regulations to take people with the mail, what’s one to do? It’s better for him to drive with you free than for me to hire horses for him.”
“Ready!” they heard a shout from the yard.
“Well, go then, and God be with you,” said the postmaster. “Which driver is going?”
“Come, sign the receipt.”
The postman signed the receipt and went out. At the entrance of the post-office there was the dark outline of a cart and three horses. The horses were standing still except that one of the tracehorses kept uneasily shifting from one leg to the other and tossing its head, making the bell clang from time to time. The cart with the mail bags looked like a patch of darkness. Two silhouettes were moving lazily beside it: the student with a portmanteau in his hand and a driver. The latter was smoking a short pipe; the light of the pipe moved about in the darkness, dying away and flaring up again; for an instant it lighted up a bit of a sleeve, then a shaggy moustache and big copper-red nose, then stern-looking, overhanging eyebrows. The postman pressed down the mail bags with his hands, laid his sword on them and jumped into the cart. The student clambered irresolutely in after him, and accidentally touching him with his elbow, said timidly and politely: “I beg your pardon.”
The pipe went out. The postmaster came out of the post-office just as he was, in his waistcoat and slippers; shrinking from the night dampness and clearing his throat, he walked beside the cart and said:
“Well, God speed! Give my love to your mother, Mihailo. Give my love to them all. And you, Ignatyev, mind you don’t forget to give the parcel to Bystretsov…. Off!”
The driver took the reins in one hand, blew his nose, and, arranging the seat under himself, clicked to the horses.
“Give them my love,” the postmaster repeated.
The big bell clanged something to the little bells, the little bells gave it a friendly answer. The cart squeaked, moved. The big bell lamented, the little bells laughed. Standing up in his seat the driver lashed the restless tracehorse twice, and the cart rumbled with a hollow sound along the dusty road. The little town was asleep. Houses and trees stood black on each side of the broad street, and not a light was to be seen. Narrow clouds stretched here and there over the star-spangled sky, and where the dawn would soon be coming there was a narrow crescent moon; but neither the stars, of which there were many, nor the half-moon, which looked white, lighted up the night air. It was cold and damp, and there was a smell of autumn.
The student, who thought that politeness required him to talk affably to a man who had not refused to let him accompany him, began:
“In summer it would be light at this time, but now there is not even a sign of the dawn. Summer is over!”
The student looked at the sky and went on:
“Even from the sky one can see that it is autumn. Look to the right. Do you see three stars side by side in a straight line? That is the constellation of Orion, which, in our hemisphere, only becomes visible in September.”
The postman, thrusting his hands into his sleeves and retreating up to his ears into his coat collar, did not stir and did not glance at the sky. Apparently the constellation of Orion did not interest him. He was accustomed to see the stars, and probably he had long grown weary of them. The student paused for a while and then said:
“It’s cold! It’s time for the dawn to begin. Do you know what time the sun rises?”
“What time does the sun rise now?”
“Between five and six,” said the driver.
The mail cart drove out of the town. Now nothing could be seen on either side of the road but the fences of kitchen gardens and here and there a solitary willow-tree; everything in front of them was shrouded in darkness. Here in the open country the half-moon looked bigger and the stars shone more brightly. Then came a scent of dampness; the postman shrank further into his collar, the student felt an unpleasant chill first creeping about his feet, then over the mail bags, over his hands and his face. The horses moved more slowly; the bell was mute as though it were frozen. There was the sound of the splash of water, and stars reflected in the water danced under the horses’ feet and round the wheels.
But ten minutes later it became so dark that neither the stars nor the moon could be seen. The mail cart had entered the forest. Prickly pine branches were continually hitting the student on his cap and a spider’s web settled on his face. Wheels and hoofs knocked against huge roots, and the mail cart swayed from side to side as though it were drunk.
“Keep to the road,” said the postman angrily. “Why do you run up the edge? My face is scratched all over by the twigs! Keep more to the right!”
But at that point there was nearly an accident. The cart suddenly bounded as though in the throes of a convulsion, began trembling, and, with a creak, lurched heavily first to the right and then to the left, and at a fearful pace dashed along the forest track. The horses had taken fright at something and bolted.
“Wo! wo!” the driver cried in alarm. “Wo… you devils!”
The student, violently shaken, bent forward and tried to find something to catch hold of so as to keep his balance and save himself from being thrown out, but the leather mail bags were slippery, and the driver, whose belt the student tried to catch at, was himself tossed up and down and seemed every moment on the point of flying out. Through the rattle of the wheels and the creaking of the cart they heard the sword fall with a clank on the ground, then a little later something fell with two heavy thuds behind the mail cart.
“Wo!” the driver cried in a piercing voice, bending backwards. “Stop!”
The student fell on his face and bruised his forehead against the driver’s seat, but was at once tossed back again and knocked his spine violently against the back of the cart.
“I am falling!” was the thought that flashed through his mind, but at that instant the horses dashed out of the forest into the open, turned sharply to the right, and rumbling over a bridge of logs, suddenly stopped dead, and the suddenness of this halt flung the student forward again.
The driver and the student were both breathless. The postman was not in the cart. He had been thrown out, together with his sword, the student’s portmanteau, and one of the mail bags.
“Stop, you rascal! Sto-op!” they heard him shout from the forest. “You damned blackguard!” he shouted, running up to the cart, and there was a note of pain and fury in his tearful voice. “You anathema, plague take you!” he roared, dashing up to the driver and shaking his fist at him.
“What a to-do! Lord have mercy on us!” muttered the driver in a conscience-stricken voice, setting right something in the harness at the horses’ heads. “It’s all that devil of a tracehorse. Cursed filly; it is only a week since she has run in harness. She goes all right, but as soon as we go downhill there is trouble! She wants a touch or two on the nose, then she wouldn’t play about like this… Stea-eady! Damn!”
While the driver was setting the horses to rights and looking for the portmanteau, the mail bag, and the sword on the road, the postman in a plaintive voice shrill with anger ejaculated oaths. After replacing the luggage the driver for no reason whatever led the horses for a hundred paces, grumbled at the restless tracehorse, and jumped up on the box.
When his fright was over the student felt amused and good-humoured. It was the first time in his life that he had driven by night in a mail cart, and the shaking he had just been through, the postman’s having been thrown out, and the pain in his own back struck him as interesting adventures. He lighted a cigarette and said with a laugh:
“Why you know, you might break your neck like that! I very nearly flew out, and I didn’t even notice you had been thrown out. I can fancy what it is like driving in autumn!”
The postman did not speak.
“Have you been going with the post for long?” the student asked.
“Oho; every day?”
“Yes, every day. I take this post and drive back again at once. Why?”
Making the journey every day, he must have had a good many interesting adventures in eleven years. On bright summer and gloomy autumn nights, or in winter when a ferocious snowstorm whirled howling round the mail cart, it must have been hard to avoid feeling frightened and uncanny. No doubt more than once the horses had bolted, the mail cart had stuck in the mud, they had been attacked by highwaymen, or had lost their way in the blizzard….
“I can fancy what adventures you must have had in eleven years!” said the student. “I expect it must be terrible driving?”
He said this and expected that the postman would tell him something, but the latter preserved a sullen silence and retreated into his collar. Meanwhile it began to get light. The sky changed colour imperceptibly; it still seemed dark, but by now the horses and the driver and the road could be seen. The crescent moon looked bigger and bigger, and the cloud that stretched below it, shaped like a cannon in a gun-carriage, showed a faint yellow on its lower edge. Soon the postman’s face was visible. It was wet with dew, grey and rigid as the face of a corpse. An expression of dull, sullen anger was set upon it, as though the postman were still in pain and still angry with the driver.
“Thank God it is daylight!” said the student, looking at his chilled and angry face. “I am quite frozen. The nights are cold in September, but as soon as the sun rises it isn’t cold. Shall we soon reach the station?”
The postman frowned and made a wry face.
“How fond you are of talking, upon my word!” he said. “Can’t you keep quiet when you are travelling?”
The student was confused, and did not approach him again all the journey. The morning came on rapidly. The moon turned pale and melted away into the dull grey sky, the cloud turned yellow all over, the stars grew dim, but the east was still cold-looking and the same colour as the rest of the sky, so that one could hardly believe the sun was hidden in it.
The chill of the morning and the surliness of the postman gradually infected the student. He looked apathetically at the country around him, waited for the warmth of the sun, and thought of nothing but how dreadful and horrible it must be for the poor trees and the grass to endure the cold nights. The sun rose dim, drowsy, and cold. The tree-tops were not gilded by the rays of the rising sun, as usually described, the sunbeams did not creep over the earth and there was no sign of joy in the flight of the sleepy birds. The cold remained just the same now that the sun was up as it had been in the night.
The student looked drowsily and ill-humouredly at the curtained windows of a mansion by which the mail cart drove. Behind those windows, he thought, people were most likely enjoying their soundest morning sleep not hearing the bells, nor feeling the cold, nor seeing the postman’s angry face; and if the bell did wake some young lady, she would turn over on the other side, smile in the fullness of her warmth and comfort, and, drawing up her feet and putting her hand under her cheek, would go off to sleep more soundly than ever.
The student looked at the pond which gleamed near the house and thought of the carp and the pike which find it possible to live in cold water….
“It’s against the regulations to take anyone with the post….” the postman said unexpectedly. “It’s not allowed! And since it is not allowed, people have no business… to get in…. Yes. It makes no difference to me, it’s true, only I don’t like it, and I don’t wish it.”
“Why didn’t you say so before, if you don’t like it?”
The postman made no answer but still had an unfriendly, angry expression. When, a little later, the horses stopped at the entrance of the station the student thanked him and got out of the cart. The mail train had not yet come in. A long goods train stood in a siding; in the tender the engine driver and his assistant, with faces wet with dew, were drinking tea from a dirty tin teapot. The carriages, the platforms, the seats were all wet and cold. Until the train came in the student stood at the buffet drinking tea while the postman, with his hands thrust up his sleeves and the same look of anger still on his face, paced up and down the platform in solitude, staring at the ground under his feet.
With whom was he angry? Was it with people, with poverty, with the autumn nights?
First published in 1887
Every detail in this story is there for a reason, and all either reflect on the development of the two main characters or have some bearing on the events that unfold. The time of year and weather conditions, rather than banal scene-setting, are essential factors in the spooking of the horses, combined with the lack of light, the dusty road, the tree roots, and this subtle sentence early on:
The horses were standing still except that one of the tracehorses kept uneasily shifting from one leg to the other and tossing its head, making the bell clang from time to time.
The crash is blamed on the uneasy tracehorse struggling to go downhill. That is the first hidden gun, and there are plenty more. Throughout the story everything that is mentioned influences another part of the narrative. This is cause and effect in perfect harmony.
Another example is the postman’s sword, which is placed upon the mailbags. When the cart later almost crashes, it is inevitable that the sword would fall onto the road. However, the sword is not the primary element Chekhov hides in plain sight to bring back at a key moment later in the story. That, instead, is the postman’s initial silence.
The twist in the tale is how it is against the regulations to take anyone with the post, something that is eventually revealed by the postman after several outbursts directed at the student as the tension between them grows. This was foreshadowed with the story’s chief hidden gun, specifically this sentence:
The student, who thought that politeness required him to talk affably to a man who had not refused to let him accompany him, began:
Why would Chekhov mention that the man had not refused to let the student accompany him? That was the rifle hidden amongst the set dressing that then had to be fired at the end; the moment the postman’s growing anger exploded, and the reason for the postman’s rage throughout.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
Chekhov’s idea of following up key and specific elements later in the narrative is one that can be applied to scenes, stories, novels, even poetry. More often than not, the gun a writer hides will be subconsciously left there. You could try to place it yourself; but like the uncomfortable tracehorse, it will stand out to the reader immediately. Upon reaching the third act of a story, it is advisable to read the first act before continuing. There you will find the throwaway remark, the indistinct plot-point, the prop, the thought, the action, the element that you have left untouched. Seek it out, bring it back, and use it in your final act. On almost every occasion, the thing you left will be exactly what you need; you will have put it there, subconsciously, to lay dormant and be awoken at the perfect opportunity.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
‘The Post’ by Anton Chekhov is Public Domain (First published in 1887)
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.