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This is your only Star Trek reference: this trope has nothing to do with Pavel Checkov. In fact the term predates the show and even the term “trope”. It’s an old theater term, and one that I’ve used a bit more lately. So I thought it would make a great installment of Trope Shark. It’s one you may have heard of before but tonight we’re going to give it a proper once-over.

Chekhov’s Gun” isn’t always about a gun but like “women in refrigerators” the name comes from the source. This quote comes courtesy of TV Tropes:

“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.”

Trope Namer Anton Chekhov (From S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.)

Basically the notion is that if you spotlight something, even subtly, it needs to factor somehow in the story. I’ll get into why I don’t agree with that in a moment. Chekhov’s point was that you shouldn’t spend so much time focusing on something (I would think this would be more important in mysteries) if it doesn’t matter to the plot. For example, let’s take the title weapon. If you have the actors or the narrator point out a gun in the room, either on the wall or someone holding it, it should by rights be the murder weapon or play some other significance to the story. Otherwise you’ve just wasted the audience’s time on something that is essentially pointless. And when you’re putting together a set piece for a theater play or some other kind of live performance, you don’t have time to add details that aren’t important when you need to change sets quickly. The faster you can change the set piece the less time the audience has to get bored waiting for you.

There are so many variations I’m loathed to share them, since the purpose of this series is an easy look and review of tropes without being lost on TV Tropes or some other site. You can have more than one (Chekhov’s Armory, which makes it harder to be subtle about its importance–subtlety is a key component in telling apart a Chekhov’s gun from any old plot device), have it come into play more than once (Chekhov’s boomerang), and the reverse of the trope, Chekhov MIA, where the fact that something is MISSING (especially someone thought dead, referred to by TV Tropes as Chekhov’s Gunman) is important to the plot later. In all of these cases you may miss that it’s anything more than window dressing and in some cases it may even turn out to be a red herring (I’ll explore that one in the future, but it’s one more people seem to know–essentially it’s some meant to trick the audience and the hero/detective into thinking it’s important when it isn’t), but it is important to the mystery or will be used to solve the problem later. Back to the gun example, it’s the only thing the hero can use to protect him/herself from the villain in the climax, or it’s learned to be the murder weapon. I remember an episode of CSI: Miami where an ice sculpture at a party turned out to be the murder weapon, but there weren’t a lot of hints to its use. Then again, I’m the guy who can’t solve Scooby-Doo mysteries.

One thing I disagree with Mr. Chekhov on is when it says that if you show something it should be important later. I don’t think it necessarily has to be, at least not to the climax. Sometimes, it’s just a small hint into the character, like he used to be a military man and became a collector of memories of his time in service and the friends he made. Then it’s an avenue to character development, not the key to the climax of the story. It may have nothing to do with the story at all, and in the case of a mystery it may even be a red herring but it serves a minor importance to the story rather than being an important factor in the climax. Otherwise, it could just be cool set dressing, like a boy’s bedroom with posters and toys to show it’s a typical boy’s bedroom. Shawn Robare of Branded In The 80’s has had fun finding all of the easter eggs, which it could also be–just something fun for the fans to see or to make the setting realistic and draw you into that world. It’s why I don’t mind product placement when it doesn’t get too out of control.

Otherwise, when done without making it obvious that you’re making this object important, Chekhov’s Gun is a great way to make things natural (you’d grab the letter opener to stop the killer from adding you to the victim list, too) or to add a clue in a way that the viewers or readers (it’s probably harder with prose to keep it subtle) can try to solve the mystery before the hero or go back and see the clues later and go “oh yeah, that was clever”. The trick, and I’ve stated this as much as I can, is subtlety. If you make the gun (literal or figurative) so obvious that the audience has to know it’s going to be involved, it’s not quite in line with the trope and the riffing to follow (especially if you’ve focused so much on something that doesn’t matter, even as a red herring) will be quite deserved.

About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

One response »

  1. […] Trope Shark: Chekhov’s Gun: No connection to Star Trek directly. Trope Watch is one of my favorite article series and I wish I did it more often. […]

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