How Chekhov's Gun Will Help You Achieve Bulletproof Foreshadowing
Understanding Chekov's Gun is essential if you want to write a screenplay that is exciting, entertaining, and economical.
How many times have you watched a character in a film escape certain doom through some kind of unexpected twist of fate? Whether it's a superhero suddenly using a superpower they never knew they had or a protagonist miraculously raising from the dead, the deus ex machina trope is one that is often considered to be not only the result of lazy or problematic storytelling but also a cheap shot taken by screenwriters who write themselves into a corner.
However, there is an antidote, or rather, some preventative medicine you can take to avoid invoking the "god from the machine" and it's called "Chekhov's Gun."
What is Chekhov's Gun?
Chekhov's Gun is a story concept that describes how every element of a story should contribute to the whole of the story. The idea comes from Anton Chekhov's book on writing advice:
"If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act."
In this video essay, Fandor's Jacob T. Swinney offers up a quick breakdown of the literary trope so you can get a better understanding of how to use it to set up effective foreshadowing in your own screenplays. Check it out below:
Chekhov's Gun got its name from 19th-century Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov who first explored the concept, stating, "If in Act in you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." In essence, he believed that elements revealed in a story should serve some sort of meaningful and intentional purpose to the overall narrative, whether it's an object, line of dialogue, or even a character.
Think of it this way: if you write a scene in which your protagonist is cleaning a gun, talking about the gun with another character, or putting the gun in their pocket, your audience is expecting to see that gun again later on in the story because I mean, why else would you draw attention to it in the first place if you weren't going to use it later?
Examples of Chekhov's gun in cinema
The easiest way to to think about Chekhov's gun is to start with every James Bond movie. That's right, Bond films ALWAYS have a scene loaded with examples. They come when he meets with Q, and we get to see all the gadgets he'll use before the end of the film. These gadgets become the best examples of Chekov's gun. Or Chekov's golden gun, as it were.
This obviously gets its own homage in the original Mission: Impossible movie, when Tom Cruise is given the exploding gum. We know he has a few sticks to use...
Aside from movies built around gadgets, there's another theory that comes to play here. Chekov's gun is all about plant and payoffs. What we plant within the screenplay or story needs to pay off later.
Think about the movie Straw Dogs.
If you've seen it, you know that in the beginning, we get lots of plants inside the house. Especially the bear trap. We see it hanging on the wall. People comment on it. So when they try to break into the home, and the main villain gets caught in the bear trap left in the living room, it pays off seeing it earlier.
It doesn't have to all be violent things either.
Think about Chekov's gun in comedies. Like what about Meet The Parents?
We know Greg is trying to quit smoking. We know the cat runs when it gets outside. We know the Chuppah is recently covered in flammable lacquer.
That's like Chekov's arsenal. Watch it explode.
As you can tell Chekov's gun is about utilizing the details you lay down to make your story feel planned, special, and well-plotted.
Up next? MacGuffins!
Giving a story element a proper setup immediately gives you the responsibility of providing a payoff later on in the story because what you've done, perhaps unintentionally, is given your audience foreshadowing of future events that involve that element.
- Not setting up an element and providing a payoff makes people feel cheated. (Deus ex machina)
- Setting up an element and not providing a payoff makes people feel unsatisfied. (Unfulfilled foreshadowing)
- Setting up an element and providing a payoff makes people feel satisfied. (Fulfilled foreshadowing)
So as you write your screenplays, pay attention to the objects, places, lines of dialogue, and characters you shine your narrative light on, because your audience will pay attention to them and they will be expecting to see how they change the course of your story.
Plot devices like this one help you tighten your story. Next, we'll dive into MacGuffins, and explore that extremely effective plot device.