Chekhov’s Gun

By Deane Barker

A principle of fiction that says every story element has to matter to the overall plot, and if something doesn’t further the plot, it should be removed.

The principle is often stated as:

If a gun appears in Act One, it better go off in Act Three.

The original reference was by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to a friend:

One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.

Chekhov’s Gun has also been paraphrased by Roger Ebert as his “Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters”:

Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story – even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot: This “mystery” person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous.

This is sometimes handled clumsily – a storyteller might crudely inject some element just so they can circle back to it, thus giving away part of the plot. In these cases, we note some element early in a story and think to ourselves, “I just know we’re going to see that again later” (see below).

Why I Looked It Up

In November 2021, Taylor Swift released a 10-minute version of her signature song All Too Well. The song supposedly tells the story of her brief love affair with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

In the first verse:

And I left my scarf there at your sister’s house
And you’ve still got it in your drawer even now

Then, at the end:

But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me

Music critic Brad Nelson said this:

A kind of Chekhov’s Scarf that Swift sheds in the first verse reappears in the final verse

The reference rung a faint bell with me, so I went looking.

I also remember a not-very-good movie called Obsessed. Early in the film, a married couple is exploring a new house. They’re up in the attic when the wife almost steps on unsupported drywall before the husband stops her and prevents her from falling through it. It was so out of place and random that I thought, “Well, I know how the villain is gonna die at the end.” I was not wrong.

This is item #136 in a sequence of 696 items.

You can use your left/right arrow keys to navigate