Missing Chekov’s Gun
Last week in the discussion on the Writers’ Block Party Podcast with Kathy Seidel on the motifs and themes used in my book A Token of Love and Pru Warren’s book Ellen and the Would-Be Gigolo, there was one important concept that we briefly discussed—Chekov’s Gun. Pru inadvertently put a “gun” on the wall in her book and then never used it.
Chekov’s Gun, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a literary concept created by the play write Anton Chekov. He said that if you put a gun (literally) on the wall of a set in Act I, then that gun must be taken down and used by Act III. Today, the concept is used not necessarily as a literal gun, but as a something that is pointed out to the reader. It could be a coin, mud on someone’s shoes, or, as in Pru’s book, the heroine feeling cold.
By the end of the book, that object or feeling needs to have a deeper meaning or be used to get the protagonist out of trouble.
If you’re writing a mystery, you can also use this concept as a red herring. You can highlight something—like the mud on someone’s shoes—but then have it not actually mean anything. The fact that you pointed it out to the reader will make them think that it is a clue to who the murderer is, but in fact it’s just mud on someone’s shoes.
In our discussion of Pru’s book, Kathy pointed out that because she was looking for repeated motifs, she noticed that for the first half of the book the heroine was frequently cold. She was on a cruise ship that was going through tropical waters, but the air conditioning throughout the inside spaces of the ship was always too strong. Kathy kept reading the book, waiting for this to be significant. She was waiting for the heroine to need the hero’s coat at some point, thereby giving away the fact that they were having a relationship. Or waiting for something else to happen because the heroine was cold.
But it never happened.
In fact, the whole concept was dropped and forgotten. Kathy felt it was an opportunity wasted when it could have been so much more.
This made me think about the book I’m writing and whether or not I’m wasting any opportunities. Do I have an object or a feeling, or a place that shows up repeatedly only to stop mentioning it after some time?
I did! I had an actual gun, in fact.
The hero carries around a small pistol in his pocket to protect himself with (someone is trying to kill him throughout the book). Whenever he takes it out to aim at someone, they always laugh because it’s a very small gun and they don’t believe they could actually be hurt by such a tiny weapon. I didn’t even think of this gun as anything but a small bit of humor added to the story, but then realized that it could be so much more.
I realized that this gun is going to have to be used by the end of the book and it’s going to have to do significant damage to someone (maybe not actually kill them, but certainly incapacitate them). If I didn’t do that, I would be missing a great opportunity. I would not be following Chekov’s rule.
Think about it. Do you have any opportunities that you might be missing in your story? Is there something that you’ve mentioned or pointed out to your readers that you don’t use later in the story that you could?