Them’s fightin words, right?

Here’s a hot take for you. Chekhov was wrong about this one. Everything people say about the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ rule is worthless.

A much better maxim is that ‘everything in story should reveal character or advance the plot.’ Chekhov forgot about the ‘reveal character’ bit when he wrote his comments about the gun. 

But Letter Review, who are you to disagree with the great Checkhov? 

That’s a good point, well made, and I’ll take it as a comment. 

First of all though, who is Chekhov? 

Anton Chekhov is an absolute legend in the story world, and regarded as one of the leading short story and playwrights of all time (and a hero of mine incidentally).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Chekhov

He died at 44, but before that spent most of his adult life practicing medicine, and in his spare time he revolutionised the short story and probably invented what we consider contemporary theatre. 

So what is meant by Chekhov’s gun? Here’s the relevant quote from Chekhov that has been lifted from one of his letters:

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. (Valentine T. Bill (1987), Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom, Philosophical Library)

So why is this wrong? 

Well just think about it … there are lots of reasons for describing that gun hanging on the wall. How many can you name? 

You might describe a character with a gun room, or trophy room, with lots of guns and animal’s heads in it. This might be because you are opposed to hunting and want to establish the character as evil, like in Ace Ventura when this exact thing happens and Ace decides he hates the antagonist. 

Does every single gun in that room need to go off? No. Why? Because you can include elements in your story that flesh out and reveal character, without directly contributing to the development of the plot any further. 

Have you heard the saying that everything in a story should reveal character or advance the plot? This is a much better maxim.

Sometimes a gun will be included in a story not because the protagonist is going to get shot with it in the final scenes (like in Chekhov’s Seagull), but because it contributes to the reality of the world you are depicting.

Here’s another example of where this maxim will lead you astray. Crime fiction! 

The whole point of crime fiction is to include lots of extraneous story world information. You’re playing a game with the reader / audience, as they try to figure out who the killer is before the end. 

You deliberately include a gun, a knife, a hammer, and an ice pick, with the intention of only one of them being finally relevant to the plot, and the rest red herrings, or misdirections. This is part of the fun. The gun does not need to go off. 

This is just two brutal takedowns of the Chekhov’s gun theory. Sorry Anton. 

Can you think of any more?   

But Letter Review, Aristotle wrote that everything in plot should be ‘necessary’ and you’re digging that vibe. Isn’t this the same thing? 

Something can exist in the story world and be necessary, without playing any one specific function in the story. For instance, a ticking bomb doesn’t need to go off in order to play the role of heightening tension. A bomb doesn’t need to explode, and a gun doesn’t need to go off in order for them to be valuable elements in a story. 

But you are being too literal Letter Review. All Chekhov is saying is that every element that is introduced must be vital to the plot at some later point. 

Again, it’s just not true. Think of a road story, like The Road. Elements are described that recede into the distance fairly swiftly. Same for Lord of the Rings. This Chekhov’s gun thing is a bum steer.