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Chekhov's Gun and the Power of Foreshadowing

"Chekhov's gun" is one of the best-known ways of foreshadowing in fiction, theater, and film. Here's how to use this technique.

Writer Anton Chekhov famously said, "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." The idea of "Chekhov's gun" was born, as a way of saying that every element in theater or fiction is important, and should be present for a reason. Chekhov mentioned this several times in his writing, and in correspondence. Another version he offered in a letter was, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." 

The idea of Chekhov's gun works well in the theater, where there are few characters, and a limited number of props. But it's not just about guns; any prop that becomes pivotal in a story should be visible early on. One example is Shakespeare's Othello. Desdemona is seen carrying a handkerchief early in the play; it was Othello’s first gift to her. She drops the handkerchief in Act III, and Iago finds it, later using it to suggest that she has been unfaithful. On the stage, every prop counts, so when Desdemona drops the handkerchief and Iago picks it up, the audience is aware that something will happen later because of that lost item. 

Another example of Chekhov's gun can be seen in the James Bond movies. Early in each film, Bond is shown the latest tech gadgets that have been prepared for him by Q. These objects often add a bit of levity to the films, as Bond tries them out or accidentally triggers some of them. For example, in No Time to Die, Q gives Bond an EMP watch, which can emit an electromagnetic pulse and disable electronic devices nearby. When the audience first sees the watch, they know it will eventually be used, but may forget about it until Bond deploys it. (For a list of James Bond gadgets, see this Wikipedia article.)

Chekhov's gun and red herrings

Since it can be facile to assume that any item acting as Chekhov's gun will be used in a story, some items or story elements are red herrings. These are used to misdirect, to lead the reader or viewer to think that they will be important, to then surprise them when they find out who the true killer is, for example. Red herrings are used in plot twists, which are very common in mysteries and thrillers. One example of a red herring in a series is Professor Snape in the Harry Potter novels. For a long time, he is seen, both in the books and movies, as someone who is likely to be in league with Voldemort, yet he turns out to be loyal to Dumbledore and Harry. 

In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the red herring is Norman Bates's mother, who is seen in the window in the house, but who turns out to be Bates himself in his mother's clothes. 

Chekhov's gun and foreshadowing

Chekhov's gun is an example of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a hint that something will happen, and, when that something does happen, the reader or viewer connects it back to the foreshadowed moment. In Game of Thrones, the phrase "Winter is coming" is ominous, and suggests that dark times are ahead, as does Han Solo saying "I've got a bad feeling about this" in Star Wars

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, this event serves as both Chekhov's gun and foreshadowing:

- Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative... It is used to return people who have been transfigured or cursed back to their original state.

It is an explanation of a Q-like gadget and how it works, and it is important when used later in the novel.

Chekhov's gun and the deus ex machina

The deus ex machina, or "god out of the machine," is a way of resolving plot that comes out of nowhere. In Greek tragedies and comedies, actors were sometimes lowered onto the stage by a mechane, or crane, or were lifted to the stage through trapdoors. In The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings, the great eagles that came to save characters were a deus ex machina. Tolkien admitted this, saying, in one of his letters:

The Eagles are a dangerous 'machine'. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness. The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of Gandalf by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.

The problem with the deus ex machina is that readers or viewers had no way of imagining that it could exist. S.S. Van Dine wrote a series of rules for detective stories in 1928, and the first two rules are applicable. 

 1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

 2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

And the last of Raymond Chandler's Ten Commandments for writing a detective novel was:

 It must be honest with the reader.

How you can use Scrivener to work with Chekhov's gun

When you're writing fiction in Scrivener, and you want to use Chekhov's gun, red herrings, foreshadowing, or a deus ex machina, you could mark documents in the binder with colors, indicating when such elements appear. This can make it easier to tie up plot threads later in your novel. You could also record these elements in the Characters or Places folders in the Binder. Even if these elements are not characters, you could treat them as such, so you remember how you described your Chekhov's gun, or what locations you used for foreshadowing. 


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