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Understanding the Use of Chekhov’s Gun in Fiction

I’ve mentioned Chekhov’s Gun in two of my recent posts, Kill Your Darlings and Show, Don’t Tell. There are variations of the rule floating around the interwebz, but here is the version I first read:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

I believe this rule basically centres about meeting reader expectations.

Each genre has its’ own conventions, and as authors we need to abide by those conventions, or twist them in an acceptable manner.

For example, a romance novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a HEA, or Happy Ever After, although a HFN aka Happy For Now is also acceptable). And a romance novel must follow the stories of the hero and heroine. Some authors will use an Other Woman or Other Man trope (think of Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home, Alabama). But savvy readers identify the true hero and heroine early on—they are the two viewpoint characters.

Mystery novels have their own set of conventions, illustrated to great effect in Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering. The detective can not be the murderer. The murderer must be one of the characters. All the characters (including the murderer and the victim) are introduced early in the novel—this gives the novel a double layer of tension as first we wonder who is going to die (and how), then we have the tension of watching the character try and solve the crime.

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is an example of the literary technique of foreshadowing.


Michael Hague defines foreshadowing as:

Giving greater credibility to a character’s actions and abilities by laying the groundwork for them earlier.

The purpose is often to make some later action seem believable, to allow us to avoid deus ex machina endings. For example, you might not be convinced by a novel ending with a shoot-em-up scene in which the petite heroine picks up a shotgun and shoots the heart out of the bad guy from 100 feet.

But you’d believe it if you’d if the hero had phoned her while she was at the shooting range, or if the description of her house included a dusty shelf of shooting trophies, or if the heroine had once tried out for the Olympic shooting team.

Unfortunately, foreshadowing has a poor cousin, telegraphing.


Telegraphing is foreshadowing taken too far. With good foreshadowing, the reader reads and absorbs the information, but the importance of the information is only apparent later in the book—perhaps at the climax. With telegraphing, it’s less subtle, as though the writer is shouting, “Pay attention! This is important!”

Rachelle Gardener says:

Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense or the impact of the event.

It’s essentially sending the reader a signal—a telegraph—about what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s in the form of an author intrusion: little did they know, that telephone call would change everything.

Sometimes it’s telling. An example would be characters discussing their plan to rescue their colleagues from the evildoers. If the rescue goes according to plan, it’s telegraphing—you only need to say it once, and it would almost always be better to show the actual rescue than tell the plan.

Sometimes it’s pretending to be a red herring—having the characters discuss the rescue plan because the rescue isn’t going to go according to plan. Unfortunately, that’s a device that’s been used too often, and the reader is likely to work out, consciously or subconsciously, that the reason they are being told the rescue plan is because something is going to go wrong. That’s telegraphing.

Foreshadowing is good. Telegraphing is not.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with many “rules” of writing (and life), there are exceptions. Two accepted exceptions to the principle of Chekhov’s gun are the red herring, and the MacGuffin.

Red Herring

A red herring is a staple of the mystery plot—something which distracts attention from the real issue. Agatha Christie novels are full of red herrings (no doubt why I can never figure out whodunit). A good red herring is plausible, and leads the reader towards a convincing yet wrong conclusion.

I think the reason a red herring works as a literary device is that the mystery reader subconsciously expects the author to include red herrings.

We see the gun on the mantelpiece. We see a character killed by a gunshot. We expect the character was shot with the gun on the mantelpiece, and we wonder who could have stolen the gun, killed someone, and returned the gun in the time allowed.

We wonder … but we’re not surprised if it turns out that there were two guns.


Merriam-Webster’s define a MacGuffin as:

an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance

The term dates from 1939, and was first used by Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin is something the characters care a lot about, but which the reader doesn’t care about. Examples include the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the plans for the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, and the Holy Grail in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and probably every other movie mentioning the Holy Grail).

In each case, the MacGuffin is purely a device to motivate the characters and drive the plot forward. Used well, it’s a great device. But be careful not to introduce something you think is a MacGuffin, but which the reader sees as Chekhov’s gun. The key to a good MacGuffin is that the promise is fulfilled. The One Ring is destroyed. The plans highlight the weakness in the Death Star. Indiana Jones does find the Holy Grail.

Basically, that’s what Chekhov’s gun comes down to: fulfilling the promise to the reader. And that’s the key to all great fiction.

Can you think of any excellent examples of Chekhov’s gun in practice?

Best of the Blogs: 1 April 2017

No, not an April Fool (although you might wonder if you watch the YouTube videos on Change Blindness below).


Narelle Atkins visits Australasian Christian Writers to challenge us to make writing a Lifelong Learning Process … and shares the news that Margie Lawson will be speaking at the 2017 Omega Writer’s Conference in Sydney, in October.

If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, this is a fabulous opportunity to hear from one of the best writing instructors I know of. Are you planning to attend any writing conferences this year? Which one?

Tina Radcliffe at Seekerville shares the best-ever explanation of GMC, The Why of Motivation. It’s all about ice cream, people.


Seven tips to tighten your writing from writing coach Lisa Tener, and a video shared by editor Joan Dempsey that illustrates why none of us can edit our own writing:

Did you spot the change? What about this one?

These two videos illustrate one of the problems of editing our own work: we see what we thought we wrote or what we meant to write … not what we actually wrote. Even worse, we don’t notice obvious errors if we’re not looking for them.

This is why we need to make multiple passes through your manuscript when editing. If you read through the manuscript looking for point of view violations, you’ll find them. But you’ll probably miss all but the most obvious spelling and grammar errors—and vice versa.

It’s fascinating to know there’s actually a name for it: Change Blindness.

Social Media Marketing

Rachelle Gardner at Books & Such Literary Agency shares on managing Your Social Media Persona. Basically, balancing being authentic with not coming across as a self-promoting whiner. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen two instances of online whining today so I guess it’s not as obvious as I thought.

Note: poor-me whining is not the same ascommenting about the world-news weather system that’s closing schools and threatening your home. That’s being real, and my thoughts are with the people of Queensland as they deal with the aftermath of ex-tropical cyclone Debbie.


It’s time to turn your question marks into exclamation points. No, the editor hasn’t gone mad. (Although I will admit I clicked in this blog post because of the intriguing title). Kaye Dacus explains in Writing with Exclamation Points Instead of Question Marks.

Best of the Blogs: 4 March 2017

Best of the blogs – the best posts of the week on writing, editing, publishing and marketing your books. And a little inspiration to encourage you.

Best of the Blogs 4 March 2017


Jami Gold talks about the importance of writing that immerses us in the story—or, more often, what takes us out of the story. She’s right. As usual. (I’m not a fan of the genres she writes, but I love her writing advice.)

Larry Brooks at StoryFix shares some depressingly good advice about The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling (depressingly good because it’s easy to read, yet difficult to implement).

Beth Vogt visits Novel Rocket to share Donald Maass’s Freeze Frame technique for writing strong fight scenes.

Can you use song lyrics in a novel? It’s a common question, and Helen Sedwick gives the answers in this post at BookWorks.

And for some fun, Kari Lynn Dell visits Writers in the Storm to share 5 Things Rodeo Taught me About Writing.


Do agents edit? Should agents edit? Rachelle Gardner shares to what level she edits books for clients, and why in How Much Should Agents Edit?


Chandler Bolt at Self-Publishing School has a great post on choosing the Perfect Book Title.

And Judith Briles visits The Book Designer to warn us to Beware of Sharks in Publishers Clothing in light of the recent demise of Tate Publishing (of course, if you’d downloaded my free guide to Christian publishers, you’d already know how to tell a shark from a minnow. If you haven’t downloaded it … sign up to my email list in the box on the right).


This is a step or three ahead of me for now, but those of you with two or more books published might be interested in this article. In it, Alexandra Amor visits The Creative Penn to talk about using Amazon advertisements (and Facebook tracking pixels) to drive newsletter signups.


And finally, some words of encouragement from DeAnna Julie Dodson (aka Juliana Deering) at Inkwell Inspirations: we are Chosen. And equipped to serve.

That’s all for now. Have a great week!