Hello writers! I’ve got another piece of writing advice for you today. Specifically, Chekhov’s gun—but also, Chekhov’s gum. You should be familiar with both sides.

Many writers will be familiar with the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. Specifically, it states that if you introduce a gun in Act 1, then the gun must be fired by Act 3.

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.

— Anton Chekhov, from S. Schukin, Memoirs

Chekhov was “master of the short story,” so you’ll have to apply that quote to the structure of your own form.

We can thank How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (a favourite of mine) for Chekhov’s gum, the flip side of the famous dramatic principle. (So famous that autocorrect doesn’t want me writing “gum” right now.)

In their alternative scene, a character enters a scene, chewing a piece of gum. The audience’s attention is drawn to this piece of gum, more so when she sticks it on the mantelpiece. At the end of the scene, the gum is cleaned up and never seen again.

Put simply, if something doesn’t have dramatic significance in your story, you should avoid implying that it does upon its introduction. You can imply significance by focusing on something a great deal, or by making an item seem unusual in context—by introducing something ordinary in an unusual situation, like people in cloaks having celebrations all around the quiet Little Whinging.

You should also remember that “guns” don’t have to be objects, either. They can also be significant characters and moments.

You can call the flipside “gum,” or “false guns”—I’ll use “gum” here—but both these play an important role in writing any story. Readers are trained to look for the significant and to ask for an explanation. That’s why red herrings work.

In Your Own Writing

  • Keep a lookout for “gum” and remove it. This can be during the planning phase or during revision. Either way, your story shouldn’t have any stuck to it by the finished product.
  • Consider what you do need to draw dramatic significance to, and where you need to draw significance to it. Again, you can do this in the planning or during revision.
  • If you get writer’s block, look through what you’ve already written and see if you spot a “gun” to get you started again.
  • It’s important, though, not to apply dramatic significance to absolutely everything in your story. That will kill it, in the end. If everything in Chekhov’s story had been a story had been a gun, that would have destroyed dramatic tension. Chekhov’s gun, on the other hand, should create it.

I’ll go more into how this principle applies to red herrings in another post. In the meantime, think about the little tips I gave above and how they might apply to your current story. Or, if you like, think of a writing topic you’d like me to address and let me know what it is!

Thank you for reading! Leave me a comment down below to let me know what you think of this post, and remember to check out my Twitter and YouTube channel! If you enjoy my content, you can support it at ko-fi.com/lizzierobinson.

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5 thoughts on “On Writing: Chekhov’s Gun

  1. Reblogged this on Little Sea Bear and commented:
    Today is Little Sea Bear’s Birthday. That’s right! My site is officially one years old!

    To celebrate, I want to announce the return of posts discussing writing. But I have an issue that I am hoping you wonderful people can help me with… The writing section needs a name!

    We have Berg’s Book Club and Bearing Disability, both starting with a B and both Bear related—I’m not sure if we can get another B and Bear related name, but we can try! right?

    What name suggestions do you have for the writing discussions? It can start with a B OR be Bear related or both.

    In the meantime, to add to the celebration, I would love to share this post written by Lizzie at It’s Me, Lizzie!

    This theory, I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

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