When inspiration hits and you finally get that killer idea for a brilliant (and sellable) script, what are your priorities? High concepts? Plot details? Characters?
The sooner you’re clear on how these elements will be featured in your screenplay, the more time you can spend planning to pull them off. And whether you’re setting up an opening scene or one that comes much later, each decision you make should have a clear intent and purpose.
Enter Chekhov’s Gun.
What is chekhov's gun?
Firing Chekhov's Gun
Unless your story is intended to be left unresolved, your audience probably needs to know what in the story is going to be paid off later. But if your payoff only exists to tie up loose ends in your plot, it will fall short of revealing crucial details about your characters and their motivations.
So, what is Chekhov’s Gun going to do to help you avoid this?
CHEKHOV'S GUN DEFINITION
WHAT IS CHEKHOV'S GUN?
Chekhov’s Gun is a principle that states every element in a story must be relevant and necessary. The idea, here, is that you shouldn’t put anything in your story that isn’t building toward an outcome of importance.
The term comes from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s timeless advice: “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 on the wall.”
The concept may relate to an actual gun or piece of weaponry in a script, but it doesn’t have to. Chekhov’s gun is really about paying off any object or subject’s relevance later in the story.
- Determine the relevancy of each element in your story
- “Pull the trigger” on those relevant elements later in the story
In the video below, watch Chekhov’s Law in action, and learn how to avoid making false promises to your audience.
Now let’s see a few examples of how to fire Chekhov’s Gun.
Though the film hasn’t held up as well as some others, The Patriot has a very satisfying payoff early on in its runtime. Nothing says “set-up” like that tomahawk introduced during the opening credits.
Now that you've watched the scene, let's see how it's paid off on the page. We've uploaded the script to the StudioBinder screenwriting software. Read The Patriot below to follow Chekhov's Gun in action, and download the full script if you want it in your library:
By the end of the first act, the introduction of the tomahawk comes full circle. After his son is killed, American Revolutionary Captain Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) hacks into the back of a Redcoat in a fit of blood-splattering rage.
The payoff, here, isn’t merely that Benjamin’s tomahawk is being used. By firing off Chekov’s Gun, screenwriter Robert Rodat illustrates Benjamin’s violent nature.
Benjamin’s children—and, in turn, the audience—learn what their father is capable of as they watch him use the weapon to take another man’s life. From this point forward, Benjamin’s relationship to violence becomes one of The Patriot’s recurring themes.
Shaun of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead has one of the most simple (and literal) examples: Writer-director Edgar Wright introduces a rifle in the first act, then has a character fire the gun in the third act.
If Wright had instead only alluded to the gun and never showed it again, that wouldn’t necessarily ruin the script... but the gun’s irrelevance would stick out like a sore thumb and possibly irritate audiences.
In another scenario, a film might introduce a story element suddenly without noticeably setting it up—a kind of backward “firing” of the Chekov Gun. If done poorly, that can tend to feel more like a deus ex machina—some contrivance conveniently placed to save a character from a perilous situation.
In the video below, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice serves as an example of how this is done right. The script doesn’t set up how its main character, Doc, (Joaquin Phoenix) hides his credit card, but he pulls it out later to help him in a pinch.
What you see in this scene is a departure from what's on the page. Once you've downloaded the Inherent Vice script, you can check out how Anderson bends Chekhov's Law.
Not only is there no set-up of the credit card being hidden in Doc's shoe earlier in the script, but the payoff—his pulling of the card—isn't included in this escape scene either:
So, it's probably safe to assume that this moment was improvised during the take that Anderson ended up using. Depending on the context, this "backwards firing" of the Chekhov Gun could feel like a cop out. But despite the credit card’s abrupt introduction, we can appreciate why Doc had hidden it, and that justifies the writer-director's creative choice.
breaking chekhov's law
An Unfired Chekhov's Gun
When your script sets something up but then does absolutely nothing to pay it off, that’s what’s known as an unfired Chekhov’s Gun.
An unfired Chekhov’s Gun rarely ever works. The problem is, any amount of time your script spends on guns or tomahawks that it’ll never mention again is time your audience will never get back.
If you want to see just how wasteful a script can be when alluding to story elements, just watch Suicide Squad. (Warning: Suicide Squad may hurt your soul with offenses that go far beyond an unfired Chekhov’s Gun... but let’s stay on topic.)
Suicide Squad sets up the significance of a stuffed unicorn that Digger Harkness, aka Captain Boomerang, (Jai Courtney) carries with him everywhere—even while fighting.
The unicorn shows up in the film a few times. So it's especially odd that when Captain Boomerang is shot later on, he's saved by a wad of cash in his jacket pocket instead of the unicorn he kept in the very same pocket.
In this case, a Chekov’s Gun that appeared to be loaded was in fact just a stuffed animal arbitrarily thrown into a superhero movie.
“But won’t firing Chekov’s Gun make my story painfully predictable?”
Bear in mind: Unpredictability is different than shock and surprise. Just because you fire the metaphorical gun doesn’t mean your payoff will be seen coming from a mile away.
There’s no hard and fast rule for writing set-ups and payoffs, other than that they need to actually matter to your story. Any narrative elements you’ve hinted at will push your story forward, so you need to do them justice by giving them some intrinsic value.
What is Deus ex Machina?
If you’re writing a script in need of a resolution, Anton Chekov’s principle is tested and true. But it’s not the only way to prevent the pitfalls of the process.
Next, we’ll take a look at the oft-used cinematic device known as the Deus ex Machina, explore some examples, and break down how to avoid the problems it can add to your plot.