“It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
A sentiment true in life but especially true in writing, and one that also describes a plot device called Chekhov’s Gun. Chekhov’s Gun may be a signature of the mystery and sci-fi/fantasy genres, but it can be used effectively in just about any kind of story.
So, let's dig into what Chekhov's Gun is, how it works, and how you can use this plot device to elevate your screenplays. But first...let's go over what a plot device actually is.
What is a Plot Device
Plot devices are narrative elements used to enhance or propel the story you’re telling.
Where Did Chekhov's Gun Come From?
The theory of Chekhov’s Gun originates with 19th-century Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov might not have named the concept after himself, but he did outline the principles of the plot device in several letters to colleagues. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off,” Chekhov wrote.
Chekhov, of course, perfectly used the plot device that now bears his name in his most well-known play, “The Seagull.” The main character carries a gun around at the beginning of the play, and by the end has used that same gun to commit suicide.
What is Chekhov's Gun?
Chekhov’s Gun simply refers to any seemingly unimportant element that becomes significant later on in the story.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” Chekhov wrote. “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.”
Basically, Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle that states that if the audience’s attention is drawn to some kind of element in great detail, that element should be somehow necessary in the overall story because — theoretically — if the writer hadn’t included it, it wouldn’t be important.
Chekhov wasn’t suggesting that writers purposefully hide importance from their audience, merely that they should not bother with details that aren’t significant. Why have the main character walk onstage with a rifle if that rifle isn’t going to be used at some point, right?
Does it Have to Be a Gun?
Anton Chekhov used an actual rifle in his story, but a Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t have to be a gun — or any weapon, for that matter.
A Chekhov’s Gun can be just about anything — a physical object, character traits or personality quirks, or even a line of dialogue that conveys important information. If it turns out to be important by the end, it’s a Chekhov’s Gun.
It’s also good to note that while Chekhov’s Gun is often used interchangeably with foreshadowing, the two terms are not quite the same. Foreshadowing hints at what is going to happen in a story, while the theory of Chekhov’s Gun implies that if something is included in the beginning, then it must be important by the end. In this way, Chekhov’s Gun is a type of foreshadowing.
Why Chekhov's Gun Works
Chekhov’s Gun is all about making a promise to the audience and keeping it. Essentially, it’s about plant and payoff.
When a writer draws the audience’s attention to something — say, a gun — it sets up an expectation that the gun will be used at some point in the story. If the gun isn’t used, audiences will leave disappointed, wondering why there were multiple close-up shots of said gun if it wasn’t actually important to the plot.
But if the gun is used, even in a small way, it completes an arc that leaves audiences feeling satisfied.
For viewers, Chekhov’s Gun works because it establishes and fulfills expectations. For writers, the theory of Chekhov’s Gun can serve as a guiding compass for which details to include and how to fulfill and subvert audience expectations.
But what does Chekhov’s Gun look like on screen? And what if it’s not a literal gun? Take a look at these few films that skillfully use Chekhov’s Gun.
**Warning: Spoilers ahead!**
Chekhov's Gun in Back to the Future
Screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale layered Back to the Future with plenty of Chekhov’s Guns, but the most prominent example is the town clock tower.
Gun is Presented
Early in the movie, Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer are walking through town when a volunteer approaches them to campaign for saving the Hill Valley clock tower. She tells the teenagers it hasn’t worked for 30 years because it was struck by lightning, and Marty gives her a coin so she’ll leave them alone.
Gun is Loaded
When Marty accidentally travels back in time to 1955, he notices that the clock is actually functional — a quick, amusing, and seemingly inconsequential shot.
Gun is Fired
Then at the movie’s climax, when Doc figures out how to send Marty back to the future, their plan hinges on Marty’s knowledge of exactly when a bolt of lightning will hit the clock tower. Lightning strikes, Marty returns to 1985, and the clock stops working.
Chekhov's Gun in Knives Out
A drop of blood on a white sneaker, the sarcastic coffee mug, Linda’s “game” with her father, the fact that Marta pukes whenever she tells a lie — Knives Out by Rian Johnson is laden with effective examples of Chekhov’s Guns. But the most glaring (and fun) example is that menacing circular display of knives in Harlan Thrombey’s library.
Gun is Presented
During the detectives’ initial round of interviews at the beginning of the story, the various characters are shown sitting against a massive display of knives, all pointing inward. In fact, the display of knives can be seen in so many scenes of the movie, viewers might be desensitized into thinking it’s simply a clever prop or a textbook Red Herring.
Gun is Loaded
Then, in the revealing flashback sequence, Harlan is chatting with Marta while she readies his nightly medication and is framed by a very sharp knife balanced on a stand. He talks about his family, musing that Ransom is “playing life like a game without consequence until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife.” He then takes the very real knife and stabs it into the table in front of them.
Gun is Fired
Finally, during the climax scene when Benoit Blanc has an epiphany and pieces the mystery together, the display of knives appears to point right at his head. When Marta gets Ransom to admit the truth, he grabs one of the knives from the display and lunges at her. But when they land on the vintage rug, Ransom pulls the retractable knife from Marta’s chest and realizes it is just a fake. (Gun fired.)
Other Examples of Chekhov's Gun
- The Rita Hayworth poster in The Shawshank Redemption
- Ripley’s unusual skill with the power loader in Aliens
- The highly explosive canisters of oxygen in Jaws
- Charles Foster Kane’s sled in Citizen Kane
- The Wayne Enterprises monorail in Batman Begins
- Cobb’s spinning top token in Inception
- Various examples (including the compass that doesn’t point north and the pistol with only one shot) in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise
- That loose nail on the basement steps in A Quiet Place
- Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor in Iron Man
- Throw a dart and you’ll probably hit one in any given episode of Lost
- The Harry Potter series (both the books and movies) are full of Chekhov’s Guns
How to Use Chekhov's Gun in Your Story
When used effectively, Chekhov’s Gun enhances audience satisfaction. The trick is in understanding the simple concept of setup and payoff.
If you spend an obvious or inordinate amount of time calling the audience’s attention to something, it should be important to the plot or story in some way.
Put simply, if you take the time to set it up, make sure to pay it off in the end.
Get Rid of Unnecessary Elements
An easy thing to do is check whether your script adheres to the theory of Chekhov’s Gun by scanning through to see if there’s anything unnecessary. Have you included a detail or piece of information that doesn’t end up being important by the end? If it’s not important, it’s probably best to lose it.
Make Sure the (Chekhov's) Gun is Loaded
Be careful though, attempts to use this plot device can easily go awry. Sometimes a Chekhov’s Gun is fired without it being loaded (no setup) or loaded without ever being fired (no payoff), both of which leave audiences disappointed.
But when used skillfully, a Chekhov’s Gun can add an additional layer to the story’s overall meaning. Harlan’s fake and real knives in Knives Out is a perfect example, as is Christopher Nolan’s use of Cobb’s spinning top totem in Inception to call attention to the movie’s larger theme of perspective.
From how they present the “gun” to the audience to how fast or slow it is fired, to how important it seems to the plot — the best writers will use various elements of the Chekhov’s Gun principle to spin the plot device on its head and make their storytelling even better.
While Chekhov’s Gun is most common to the mystery and sci-fi/fantasy genres, a good writer can make use of it in any kind of story. Just make sure that you choose a “gun” that makes sense for your story and your characters — which, in a large majority of cases, probably means it’s not a gun at all!
Check out our other plot device breakdowns from this series here!
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.