“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
This is important for any storyteller in any medium. Only write what has relevance and make sure you fulfil your promises to your audience.
This is something I also have to remind myself. I like to tell people I put the “opera” in space opera and sometimes I get myself tied up in my own Meereenese knot (That’s a Game of Thrones reference….books, not TV Show). The God Queen is the first book of a planned series. Naturally I have a HUGE cast planned and I tried introducing tons of characters and foreshadowing and awesomeness. Yeah – thanks to my editor, a lot of that was taken out. Especially as a debut novel – you want to keep shit simple. Why introduce characters who will have absolutely no impact with this story? She was right and it made planning my next books easier. Stick to the story at hand, don’t introduce elements unless you plan on a pay off before you read the final pages.
There are differing opinions about what Chekhov meant about the gun. In some ways it is about narrative simplicity – like I mentioned before with my need to overcomplicated my stories with more characters than necessary (although these characters can be considered Chekhov’s gunman). Essentially don’t introduce an element to a story unless you know that it will have an impact.
Others believe it is also a form of foreshadowing. Something innocuous as a gun hanging on a wall that stares the audience in the face but not having attention directly drawn to. The gun ends up playing a role later in the play or movie.
It’s a fascinating trope that can really bring the story together if executed correctly. I thought – why not list movies that incorporate both of these thoughts together?
1. The Fifth Element
Corbin Dallas smokes a cigarette in the beginning of the film, revealing that his matchbox only one had match left. It’s not a big deal since he plans on quitting anyway. Little did he know that this match would be essential to saving the world at the climax of the movie.
2. Shaun of the Dead
At the beginning of the film, Shaun and Ed discuss whether or not the gun at the back of the Winchester is real. Once they find themselves in the middle of their little zombie problem….turns out the gun is loaded!
One of the most powerful scenes of this movie is Ripley appearing to fight the alien queen while riding a powerloader. The machine is introduced briefly in the beginning of the film in what initial appears as a throwaway scene. Instead it sets up one of the most badass images of women in sci fi!
The Peltzer family just happen to keep a shield and swords in their living room. The items come in handy later!
Once adult Peter Pan returns to Neverland and sneaks onto Hook’s ship. He witness the captain’s speech about kidnapping adult Pan’s children and killing the crocodile who had been pursuing him for years. Hook is ironically killed by the same croc by the end of the film.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
One of the most memorable aspects of Indiana Jones’ character is that he hates snakes. We learn this shortly after the movie begins. But this moment of humor serves more than just character introduction – but when Belloq seals Indy and Marion in the giant pit once he has the Ark….the pit is full of snakes!
7. Jurassic Park
As a scientist, I loved the mention of frog DNA used to bring the Dinos back to life. They make special care to mention that all the dinosaurs were made female to prevent them from breeding. However, the strand of West African frog DNA used ultimately allows the dinos to change genders and thus able to reproduce.
8. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The murder of the historian half way through the film seems completely random; however, it is what King Arthur, Sir Bedevere, and Sir Lancelot are arrested for at the end of the film. This is, of course, a Monty Python film and something less chaotic would have been acceptable.
A movie some people jokingly rename: Chekov’s gun. Merrill’s bat and Bo’s abandoned glasses of water mentioned briefly in the beginning of the film feel random. However, they are integral to the climatic encounter against the aliens at the end of the film.
10. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
When Eddie Valiant is investigating Marvin Acme’s murder – the other police officers in the area are playing with a portable hole and a mallet with a spring loaded boxing glove inside. These are weapons Eddie uses in the climatic fight against Judge Doom.
So there you have it folks – great examples of Chekov’s gun. Of course I could go on and on with more examples, but ten is a good number.
What do you guys think? What other films, books, or plays can you think of that successfully implement Chekhov’s gun?
Are you interested in more? My space opera novel, The God Queen is coming out soon!
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