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Chekhov's gun

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A gun hanging on the wall

Chekhov's gun (Chekhov's rifle; Russian: Чеховское ружьё) is a narrative principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. For example, if a writer features a gun in a story, there must be a reason for it, such as it being fired some time later in the plot. All elements must eventually come into play at some point in the story. Some authors, such as Hemingway, do not agree with this principle.

The principle is recorded in letters by Anton Chekhov several times, with some variation; it was advice for young playwrights.[1][2][3][4]

In recent years, the term has also taken on the meaning of a plot element that is introduced early in a story, whose significance to the plot does not become clear until later.[5][6] This meaning is separate from Chekhov's original intention with the principle, which relates to narrative conservation and necessity, rather than plot significance.


The principle is carried out somewhat literally in many of the James Bond films, in which the spy is presented with new gadgets at the beginning of a mission – such as a concealed, wrist-activated dart gun in Moonraker[7] – and typically each device serves a vital role in the story.[8] The principle dictates that only the devices utilized later in the story may be presented. A common misconception is that the reveal itself is a Chekhov's gun plot element. There are however exceptions in the James Bond films; in Licence to Kill for example, Bond gets an instant camera with a built-in laser gun that takes x-ray pictures, but is immediately used for comedic effect and makes no further appearance in the film.


Ernest J. Simmons, (1903–1972)[9] writes that Chekhov repeated the same point, which may account for there being several variations.[10]

  • "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."[11][12][13]
    (Here the "gun" refers to a monologue that Chekhov deemed superfluous and unrelated to the rest of the play.)
  • "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first act that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third act it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." — Sergius Shchukin (1911) Memoirs.[14][3]
  • "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."[15]


Ernest Hemingway mocked the principle in his essay "The art of the short story",[16] giving the example of two characters that are introduced and then never mentioned again in his short story "Fifty Grand". Hemingway valued inconsequential details, but conceded that readers will inevitably seek symbolism and significance in them.[17] Writer Andrea Phillips noted that assigning a single role for every detail makes a story predictable and leaves it "colorless".[18]

Writing in 1999, Donald Rayfield noted that in Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, contrary to Chekhov's own advice, there are two loaded firearms that are not fired. The unfired rifles tie into the play's theme of lacking or incomplete action.[19][20]

See also[edit]

  • Concision – the principle of brevity in writing
  • Foreshadowing – a plot device where what is to come is hinted at, to arouse interest or to guard against disappointment
  • MacGuffin – a plot motivator that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself
  • Occam's razor – the idea that explanatory mechanisms should not be posited without being necessary.
  • Red herring – drawing attention to a certain element to mislead
  • Shaggy dog story – a long-winded anecdote designed to lure the audience into a false sense of expectation, only to disappoint them with an anticlimactic ending or punchline.
  • Deus ex machina – a plot element introduced unexpectedly to resolve an otherwise unsolvable situation


  1. ^ Bitsilli, Petr Mikhailovich (1983). Chekhov's Art: A stylistic analysis. Ardis. p. x.
  2. ^ Daniel S. Burt (2008). The literature 100: A ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time. Infobase Publishing.
  3. ^ a b Bill, Valentine T. (1987). Chekhov: The silent voice of freedom. Philosophical Library.
  4. ^ Delaney, Brian M. (1990). "Chekhov's gun and Nietzsche's hammer: The biotechnological revolution and the sociology of knowledge". Berkeley Journal of Sociology. 35: 167–174. ISSN 0067-5830. JSTOR 41035505.
  5. ^ Foley, John Miles (16 September 2005). A Companion to Ancient Epic. Wiley. ISBN 978-1-4051-0524-8.
  6. ^ Updike, John (30 December 2008). Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-55580-9.
  7. ^ Britt, Ryan (8 November 2012). "Pay attention 007! 7 Bond gadgets which defy reason and practicality". Tor.com.
  8. ^ Hurley, Leon (1 February 2017). "Chekhov's Gun is the movie trope that'll ruin everything once you know about it". Games Radar. Feature.
  9. ^
  10. ^
    • Simmons, Ernest Joseph (1962). Chekhov: A biography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. p. 190. ISBN 0-226-75805-2.
    • Simmons, Ernest Joseph (1962). Chekhov: A Biography. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-7581-9751-1.
  11. ^ Chekhov, A.P. (1 November 1889). "[no title cited]". Letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A.S. Gruzinsky).
  12. ^ Чехов, А.П. (1 November 1889). "Чехов — Лазареву (Грузинскому) А. С.". Чехов А. П. Полное собрание сочинений и писем. АН СССР. Ин-т мировой лит.
  13. ^ Goldberg, Leah (1976). Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Essays. Magnes Press, Hebrew University. p. 163.
  14. ^ Щукин, С.Н. [Shchukin, Sergius] (1911). "Из воспоминаний об А.П. Чехове" [Memoirs]. Русская Мысль [Russian Thought]: 44.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Gurliand, Ilia (11 July 1904). "Reminiscences of A.P. Chekhov". Театр и искусство (Teatr i iskusstvo - Theater and art) (28): 521.
  16. ^ The Art of the Short Story Ernest Hemingway.
  17. ^ Hunter, Adrian C. (April 1999). Complete with Missing Parts: Modernist short fiction as interrogative text (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). Department of English Literature. Glasgow, UK: University of Glasgow. pp. 126–127, 201–203. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-12-09. Retrieved 2019-05-29.
  18. ^ Phillips, Andrea (2010-10-06). "The case against Chekhov's gun". Andrea Phillips (blog). Retrieved 2021-09-24 – via deusexmachinatio.com.
  19. ^ Rayfield, Donald (2000). Anton Chekhov: A Life. Northwestern University Press. p. 580.
  20. ^ Rayfield, Donald (1999). Understanding Chekhov: A critical study of Chekhov's prose and drama. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 251.