On Writing: Chekhov’s Gun

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!

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