Think about your reader’s mental real estate
Chekhov’s gun is the principle—attributed to 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov—that if you mention something in your writing, it needs to be in play later.
“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.” Anton Chekhov
It’s also been described as the ‘Q Factor’. In James Bond films, the character Q always introduces Bond to some nifty gadget at the start of the film that turns out to be a lifesaver at a crucial moment.
Why does it work?
There are two theories working together to explain this system.
The first is a framework called Contextual Frame Theory. This was developed by Catherine Emmott who built on work done in the 1970s in the field of AI and a key premise of the theory is that we absorb information in a ‘central directory’ or information retrieval network. So when we read on the page, to use Chekhov’s example, that a loaded rifle is hanging on the wall, that information has been stored away for later.
You can make especially good use of this framework in stories requiring a twist in the tale – the reason, for example, the revelation of Professor Quirrell as a villain in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone works is because clues have been planted earlier in the book and stored in our central directory, and when we retrieve these clues they make sense in the new context.
The second tool at play with Chekhov’s Gun is foregrounding. Basically, as you’re reading and filing away the information you’re being given, a part of you reasons that if you’re being told this it must be important.
Imagine your scene is being performed on stage or film. Ok, enough daydreaming, back to the task…
You have to justify every prop being brought on stage. Why is it there? It shouldn’t be there by accident – every prop is taking up your budget and you need to pay your leading actors. Incidentally, this is one reason you shouldn’t stuff your research into your book. It’s great that you’ve done careful investigation into the exact colour wallpaper that was fashionable in 1849 but unless it serves a purpose, you’re wasting your audience’s mental budget.
Simply by telling your reader that this detail is present, you are telling them to pay attention. This matters. I’m drawing your attention to this. I’ll be testing you later. The story won’t work unless you know that this gun is here and it’s loaded.
And in reverse… if your character needs to reach out wildly to grab the gun that saves their life at the last minute, make sure the gun has been placed on set earlier. You can be explicit:
The gun was sitting on the desk, loaded and primed.
Or subtle, using contextual cues that you can assume will make sense:
The Lone Ranger entered the saloon and every hand went to a holster.
But don’t have a crucial detail appearing out of thin air with no explanation.
The nursery just happened to have a loaded, primed rifle lying on the floor.
So two points to notice:
- Only include essential information that the reader needs
- Make sure you do include that information!
If you’re editing your book after the first draft and have broken it down into a spreadsheet listing each scene (and if you haven’t, I will explain this in a post coming soon), you’ll be able to note what clues need to be planted earlier. And careful editing, bearing in mind the mental real estate of your reader’s central directory, will help you pare out details that are there for padding.
You’ll get a leaner, tighter story and your plot will make sense.
And if you’re interested in seeing the master in action, check out Chekhov’s short stories with a critical eye, looking out for him putting his advice into practice.
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