Chekhov’s Gun

I seriously doubt that Anton Chekhov, nineteenth-century playwright and short story writer, was referring to the Glock 19 as his gun, nor even a handgun for that matter. But he did have a thing or two to say about writing, and what he does have to say about the nature of storytelling is pure gold.

Well, who exactly was Anton Chekhov? Well, as I stated beforehand, he was a playwright and writer of short stories in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth. As a doctor-turned-storyteller, he had been writing all of his life, but it wasn’t until 1888 that he buckled down and got serious about it. At the bequest of friends, he stopped writing what he described as “the way reporters write up their notes about fires—mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.” He is regarded as one of the greatest storytellers of all time.

Chekhov, not unlike the future master writer C.S. Lewis, used to write letters of advice to young playwrights (what I wouldn’t give to get my hands on one of Lewis’ or Chekhov’s original letters…). Among them, he mentioned one particular technique that came to be later known as Chekhov’s gun.

In one such letter to A. S. Gruzinsky, Chekhov writes:

“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.”

– Anton Chekhov

This is the beginning of the principle. But what exactly does it mean? Another quote from Chekhov (which I cannot place) deals with the same concept, only more clearly:

“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.”

– Anton Chekhov

As you can see, he explains the concept clearly and distinctly: if an object in a story has no purpose, then it should be written out. That’s Chekhov’s gun: it’s the one that is always fired, or alternatively never is because it doesn’t exist. Chekhov is advocation for tight-as-a-drum storytelling. No part goes to waste. (possibly even a recyclist)

Now, you’re probably going to want my take on it. Well…I mean, to be fair, this is a pretty broad statement. ALL things that have NO relevance should be removed from ALL stories. C’mon, seriously? There has got to be a few useless things in storytelling that serve some purpose. Right?

This is where Chekhov smiles and shakes his head. “You see now,” He says in his Russian accent, “if object have purpose, is not useless. You insist on keeping useless thing in story? Because you want to use it later? Because it will be less useless in future?” Here he breaks into a loud, guffawing laugh. “Much like fired gun, no?”

That’s the paradox: as soon as you oppose the principle of Chekhov’s gun, you find yourself holding on to the “useless” character, device, or object because it serves some kind of purpose in the story. Be careful on what you denounce as “useless”: even the unfired gun on the wall can be used as a catalyst to tell an old war story or allegory, or even for dramatic effect.

However, if you truly are including something in the story that serves absolutely no purpose, and the only reason you cite for keeping it in is “just because I want to”, this is where Chekhov turns his evil eye on you and hauls you off to your computer to write that object out of the story.

Simply put: do not put useless things in your story. If you found that you have, cut them out. Or even better, give useless things ne purpose: take the gun off the wall and put it in the hands of a frightened man who is trying to defend his house against Indians in some western or pioneer novel.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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