Chekhov’s Gun

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”


“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

An oft-used tenant of foreshadowing on both stage and page.  Meant to remove unnecessary clutter in the scene by only showing what is relevant, and avoid plot-holes by only using that which has been stated as present.

But a new style of combat has arisen in the use of this weapon:  delay.  As presented originally, a gun in the first act is fired in the second.  Now, a gun in the first act may disappear in the second, third, and forth, but return to be fired in the fifth.

And the question:  Is this an appropriate use of Chekhov’s Gun?

And the answer:  A double-edged sword cuts both ways.

It is surely not a traditional use of Chekhov’s Gun, because the reason for its use has changed.  Before, Chekhov’s Gun was used in tandem with the simplicity of the stage, and used because of it.  A stage is a simple place.  When there is not much to look at, an audience will focus on what there is to look at.  Objects on the stage do not appear randomly, but are deliberately placed.  It takes effort and thought to place them, as well as remove them.  Every word, every movement on the stage is tracked and made note of; everything has a purpose.

But this new Chekhov’s Gun, it is used because of the complexity of the stage.  It is placed on the stage early, but amongst a stage full of other odd ends.  It is easily missed, and if found, easily forgotten.  In fact, it is meant to be forgotten, so that when it returns, it will come as a shock to the audience, as they remember the insignificant gun, now brought to importance.  Just as on a simple stage where the audience focuses on the few things they see, a complex stage will instead force the audience to focus on everything at once, and thus truly focus on nothing at all.  In this way a playwright may hide something in plain sight, and none are the wiser.

And this is the difference.  The old Chekhov’s Gun arrives on stage, and is instantly important.  The new Chekhov’s Gun arrives on stage, and is unimportant, until the very last moment.  There is no indication given that the gun will become important; not only does the audience not suspect the gun, the audience is not able to suspect the gun.  It is not unlike a mystery where “the butler did it”, but no true evidence was ever revealed to suspect the butler until after the fact.  A sharp mind will remember the seemingly insignificant details presented early-on, and discern the mystery, but all other minds will not.

Here now is the previously-mentioned double-edged sword.  There is a line between brilliance and madness, and this new Chekhov’s Gun balances precariously on it.  The audience may see the gun used in the fifth act, remember it from the first, curse their foolishness for not remembering it, and then applaud the playwright’s brilliance for remembering it.  Or, the audience may see the gun used in the fifth act, but instead remember its absence from the second, third, and fourth, and curse the playwright for misleading them in such an underhanded fashion.  Because of its long absence, it’s as if the gun was never there to begin with, and yet its one token appearance in the first act solidifies it as “present”.  It remains to each member of the audience to determine for themselves whether this is a crafty truth, or a haughty lie.


There is another term from ancient playwriting:  Deus Ex Machina, “god from the machine”.  Wherein a “god” character is lowered from above the stage via a “machine” rope and pulley system, and uses its mystical powers to resolve all conflicts.  It has long been considered a weak contrivance of plot, requiring no justification or effort to simply “magic” away problems that plague the writer as much as they do the characters.  And this is the true root of the Chekhov’s Gun problem, because the new Chekhov’s Gun is not a Chekhov’s Gun at all:  it is a Deus Ex Machina, in disguise.  It comes from out of nowhere to dramatically change the story, and the justification for its sudden usage–existing since the first act–is shaky.  It is easily taken as a “cheap” trick that could have been portrayed better, or simply left unused.  The effect is compounded the more times it is used, as the playwright seemingly grasps at every minute detail of the first act and reuses them in the fifth as the conflict requires them to be used.

This is not brilliance; it is madness.  There is no cleverness in reviving a mundane prop for a resolution of conflict, because while the resolution is justified on paper, there is no requirement for it to be a good justification, and the lack of goodness will only accelerate the realization of the truth.  And the truth is that this is nothing but Deus Ex Chekhov’s Gun: assuming that the use of Chekhov’s Gun gives a playwright carte blanche to do whatever he wishes to do to resolve conflict.

Those who seek to make such a gun their god will quickly realize what a poor excuse for a deity it is.

{Dedicated to The Oblivion Society, by Marcus Alexander Hart, which has the largest density of Deus Ex Chekhov’s Guns per square inch I have ever seen, and probably ever will see.}


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