Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Chekhov's gun

If a gun is introduced in the first act, it must be fired by the third.

The theory of "Chekhov's gun" comes from a Russian playright named Anton Chekhov. It's a method of foreshadowing what is to come -- if something that seems irrelevant pops up in your story, you can be fairly certain it will become relevant by the end.  (Or it won't. In which case the author/screenwriter/playright was just dicking with you.)

The most obvious example of Chekhov's gun that comes to mind is Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. I was a summer associate in Fake Austin in July 2008, and I kept hearing about a book that was being released. I was vaguely aware of the Twilight phenomenon, thanks to my sister Echo, but I had never before experienced the kind of hype and mania that accompanied the build up to Breaking Dawn. It was like the time my friends and I got tickets to a midnight showing of X-Men 2 freshman year in college to celebrate being done with finals and we were surrounded by nerds who gave standing ovations throughout the movie--only worse.

The night of its release-party, my firm was holding an event at a Dave and Busters, and after an evening of buffalo wings and Dance Dance Revolution, I decided to pop over to the next-door Barnes and Noble to see what all the pre-midnight fuss was about.

It got weird.

It got real weird.

Needless to say, I left that Barnes and Noble without a copy.

But then the next day I was at the gym and I noticed (I kid you not) a 6 foot 6, completely ripped guy my age ... reading Breaking Dawn as he worked the stair-stepper machine. I watched him as he tore up and down the stair-stepper, working up a sweat ... only to inexplicably slow down as he became more and more engrossed in the story.

Well, after that I drove straight to my nearest bookstore and bought a copy. You would have too, if you'd witnessed what I'd witnessed.

As I sat by the pool in my complex that afternoon, stubbornly enduring the 110 degree temperatures, I read the section where Edward tells Bella, apropos of nothing, about the prohibition on making children into vampires.


I knew in that second, roughly 20 pages into the book, that by the end of Breaking Dawn, someone was making or having a vampire baby. (And since Stephenie Meyer is Mormon, probably having. We do love us some procreation.)

No wonder that kid had been unable to focus on getting his shred on.

Another example of books that drop early details that become incredibly relevant later is the Harry Potter series. Anyone else remember a Harry Potter and thinking, "Of course he's a werewolf! Of course the rat is really a person! Of course the diary is evil! Of course he's not really a professor! Of course the wand belongs to someone else! Of course she knew Snape from before! Why didn't I see that?"

Because JK Rowling knows how to scatter her guns amid all the other world-building details that she provides to make the world of Hogwarts come alive. She lulls you into a false sense of wonder with tidbits on pumpkin pastries, floating candlesticks, and the history of witchcraft in the Bronze Age -- meanwhile, don't pay attention to this detail, it's just the remedy for an accidental poisoning.


Do you have any memories of a book, movie, or film where suddenly you knew what was coming -- or better yet, the delight you felt at the end of a book, movie, or film where you realized you should have known, but didn't?


  1. I made it all the way to the end of Sixth Sense without realizing. Also The Prestige.

    And of course the Harry Potter stuff is so true, and you lose most of the "non-relevant" world building/gun-hiding detail when you have to cut a 700 page book down to a 2 hour film.

  2. It's always a difficult balance about trying to place the gun in your pages without making it too obvious and also making it memorable. Writers who do it well are amazing.

  3. I have such a love/hate relationship with the Twilight series. But that's neither here nor there. J.K was great at the 'gun' placement. But really, the one that gets me most every time is Agatha Christie. Not sure if I'm just a moron when it comes to mystery! Don't think so, because most 'modern day' who done it's I have solved within the first 10 chapters. Lady Agatha? She'll take a feather from the first page and make it relevant, while telling you it's relevant...and you'll STILL miss it. grr. Brilliant. Explorer here :) Great Blog! Will be back!

    Saffron Wine

  4. The Life of Pi.
    Should of seen it coming. (sigh)
    Should have seen it coming.

    1. What an absolutely incredible book. Idk, tho. i dont think anyone saw it coming, particularly because the end leaves multiple possibilities to ponder. still, such a great book.

  5. Great post. I ditto Alicia's comment above, Agatha Christie was masterful. Tim Powers is also excellent at this, I'm specifically thinking of The Anubis Gates.

  6. A Tale of Two Cities. I was blown away — in a wonderful way — at the ending. Not sure if I "should" have known what was coming, but I'm so glad I didn't cheat by using Sparknotes or whatever. It's still one of my favorite books ever.

  7. Just started watching Lost (yes, I know it's been over for a while, but I never saw it while it was on).

    They sure scatter a lot of "Chekhov's guns," some of which I've been able to guess (to the annoyance of my family as they watch with me). :)

    - Lauren @Word Art

  8. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series is like that. Ity bity details from the first book loom HUGE in the third. *mind blown*

    Great post, as usual.

  9. just making my rounds as a brand new blogger (well, i posted a very politically driven blog back in 2009, but have only just started to be blog-inspired daily...or weekly, at least). I have been running around the village, meeting new writers, poets, dragon-trainers, etc. by way of the A to Z Challenge. I'm a wander-off-the-path kind of gal, so because my nature demands it, I have been randomly selecting blogs from the A to Z sign-up list (i know i'm suppose to do it in order to be fair, but that's just not how i roll; besides, my time is limited since I am still spending so much of it trying to figure out simple things on my own page like how to allow people to leave comments & how to add pics, so if i'd rather read a blog entitled "Flying Midgets & Moon Fries" rather than "The Quilting Bee," I think that's understandable). Anyway, your title intrigued me, so i peeked; I'm glad I did. There have been few blogs that have really stabbed me with the point of real interest, unforced and natural humor, a sense of kinship or all three (so far, anyway...i'm sure i will discover more as i wander the alley ways of the "village"). Yours was one of them. I particluarly enjoy the humor with which you write...the tones of sarcasm are delightfully tasty to me. well done.

  10. oh, and regarding chekhov's gun: on the flipside of the meaning...i think the way Stephen King ended the Dark Tower series was unforeseeable. Others may disagree, and if so, I would love to know what bits of chekhov's gun he left lying about. I followed Roland like a little girl on her father's coat tail, and i just never saw it coming. it was ingenius, but i did not see it coming (which i suppose is part of the genius of it).

  11. I think one of the most blatant examples of this in film is The Sixth Sense.

    I love it when writers are able to really, truly master this skill. I get a giddy thrill from getting to that surprise and thinking, "I can't believe I didn't see that coming!"