*Nonfiction* and *Fiction*
You’ve probably heard of “Chekhov’s Gun,” the principle that everything in a story must have a reason to be there. This comes from a quote by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov: “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.”
So why is this post called Chekhov’s Laser Pistol?
I like Star Trek, and Chekhov is the name of one of the original Enterprise’s officers. The first time I heard the phrase “Chekhov’s Gun,” I thought it was a reference to the show.
No, really. That’s the reason the post has a scifi title. Haha.
I’m here all week, folks!
We’ve already discussed the need to insert only pertinent information into your book, so I’m not going to talk about that anymore. (Today, at least.) Instead we’ll cover how to prepare your readers for the moment Chekhov’s Gun does fire.
First, know that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t have to be a literal gun. It refers to any plot element that appears in the book and leads to some sort of payoff. For nonfiction writers, it includes any story you tell or any piece of information you provide with the promise of future relevance.
The amount of explosive power of the gun should be directly proportional to the amount of build-up it receives. If you mention in chapter one that there’s a gun on the wall, and don’t talk about it again until suddenly it explodes in the middle of the finale, your readers will probably feel less of: “Wow! I totally didn’t see that coming!” and more of: “Wait, when did he say there was a gun on the wall?” If you want Chekhov’s Gun to be important, make it important throughout the story. Give it a history or sentimental significance and refer to it every so often, just to remind the reader that it’s there.
Conversely, if the payoff is a minor one—”The gun contained a clue that led to another clue!” or “The person in this anecdote introduced me to this other person in this more important anecdote!”—don’t build it up too much. You’ve probably seen a piece of media that focused on a plot element as if it would be really important, and it turned out to be something minor. (I’m looking at you, Lost.) Remember the disappointment you felt? Don’t do that to your readers. Build up your Chekhov’s Guns in proportion to their importance.
So how much buildup should you use for different levels of significance? The following guidelines are just my personal opinion, but feel free to apply or modify them to fit your own writing. These work for plot elements that have their importance revealed in the second half of the book. For earlier reveals, you don’t need as much build-up.
Minor Plot Element:
Provides cursory information or attaches to a more important plot element. Does not exert major influence on the storyline.
Mention once or twice at most.
Moderate Plot Element:
Provides information, leads directly to a major plot element, or nudges the storyline.
Mention two times at minimum, four or five at most.
Major Plot Element:
Provides crucial information and/or directly impacts the storyline.
Mention at least three times.
If the plot element has enough cultural significance that it needs no introduction (e.g. the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure), feel free to ignore all of these guidelines and just mention the plot element when it’s needed.
If one of your descriptions goes on for a while or otherwise leaves a lasting impression with the reader, you may only need to introduce it once, even if it’s a major plot element later.
Have you read a book where Chekhov’s Gun failed to go off? What about one where the buildup made you expect Chekhov’s Cannon but delivered Chekhov’s Water Pistol? Share your disappointments in the comments!
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Your book is as long as: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut