Chekhov’s gun is ubiquitous in the world of filmmaking. But, what is Chekhov’s Gun? Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling theory that states that every element in a story should serve the plot. Chekhov claimed that making false promises to the viewer by showcasing things that never led to anything in the plot was inappropriate. It has come to be recognized as the occurrence in which a seemingly insignificant object or event in a film is subsequently discovered to be significant.
Chekhov’s gun is repeated throughout the James Bond franchise, with Q displaying his ingenious new gadgets to Bond at the start of each film, and each feature contained in them coming to his help later in the plot. The concept draws the viewers’ appeal implying that the twist in the ending has been appropriately set up, rather than appearing out of the blue.
Who Created Chekhov’s Gun?
Anton Chekhov, a 19th-century Russian playwright, and short-story writer is the inventor of Chekhov’s Gun idea. Although Chekhov did not name the plot technique, he laid its foundations in multiple letters to colleagues. “A loaded rifle should never be placed on the stage if it is not going to go off,” Chekhov wrote.
Chekhov exploited the plot device that bears his name in his most famous play, “The Seagull,” to perfection. At the start of the play, the main character has a gun, and in the end, he shoots himself using the same pistol.
Does it Have to Be a Gun?
Anton Chekhov utilized an actual rifle in his story, but a Chekhov’s Gun does not have to be a gun — or even a weapon. A Chekhov’s Gun can be a physical object, a character characteristic or personality quirk, or even a dialogue that reveals crucial information. It is a Chekhov’s Gun if it turns out to be impactful.
It is also worth noting that Chekhov’s Gun and foreshadowing are sometimes used interchangeably. However, the two concepts are not interchangeable. Foreshadowing gives a hint as to what will happen in a story, but Chekhov’s Gun hypothesis states that if something is mentioned initially, it must be crucial by the end.
Chekhov’s Gun: Setups and Payoffs
Setups and payoffs are how Chekhov’s Gun theory is put into action. The setup in Act One exhibits the gun, and the payout in Act Three fires it. This paradigm can be used to explain almost any aspect of storytelling. Setups and payoffs are frequently used in the best writing for stage, cinema, and literature; You do not feel the best ones, as they are always in retrospect. When it is too clear, the audience may go one step ahead of the movie, which is never good.
Chekhov’s gun works for viewers because it builds and satisfies expectations. Chekhov’s Gun hypothesis can help writers figure out which elements to add and how to please and confound audience expectations.
Using Chekhov’s Gun with a Twist
Chekhov’s gun is frequently used in the murder mystery genre in a twisted fashion. It will be too obvious who the culprit is in many films if you do not add this feature. This type of Chekhov’s gun subversion is known as a red herring in the murder-mystery genre; a clue, detail, or piece of information used to lead the audience astray from the truth to protect the big reveal.
Audiences can keep track of time. During a setup, Chekhov’s gun technique can be used to cause a dent in the audience’s expectations to overwhelm them with the payoff. This is more difficult than a typical setup and payoff, but the effects can be thrilling or startling if appropriately executed.
Give your protagonist a valuable tool and put them in a dire circumstance where that tool might save them, then take that instrument away, increasing their danger.
This sequence from Shane Black’s best film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, shows how to use Chekhov’s pistol for subversion.
Setup: Our protagonist, Harry, is shown reading and carrying pulp detective novels throughout Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Payoff: When Harry is shot at the movie’s end, the book is placed over his heart to stop the bullet.
Twist: But hold just a minute; the book did not work. Even though the bullet traveled directly through the book, he was struck.
Chekhov’s Gun Examples
1. Fifth Element (1997) – Match
The Fifth Element‘s Chekhov’s gun is remarkable because it is so subtle that the audience can never see it coming. Dallas Korben, a futuristic cab driver, is played by Bruce Willis. He is trying to quit smoking by only smoking four cigarettes a day. He is shown looking for a match in an early scene. He comes upon one with two match sticks left after finding several empty boxes. Dallas uses one to start his cigarette. He tucks one inside his pocket.
The matches are not addressed again until the final scene of the film. Dallas and his companions have amassed a collection of elemental stones that they will need to combat an ancient evil. One has to light the elemental stones to activate one of them. With no way to do so, everyone appears to be doomed. Dallas suddenly realizes he has one match remaining in his pack. He uses it to light the stone and saves the entire planet.
2. Knives Out(2019) – Duplicate Knife
Noted mystery author Harlan Thrombey complains to his caretaker Marta about his unpleasant, entitled grandson Ransom before his death, which puts Knives Out‘s narrative in motion. Then, to shed some light on his grandson’s entitlement, the author claims that his grandson cannot make out a fake knife from a real one.
When Harlan is found dead, a detective is made to investigate, and Marta eventually convinces Ransom that he is the perpetrator. He takes a knife from his grandfather’s collection and tries to stab her, enraged by what she did. But, unfortunately, it is just a prop knife. He could not notice the difference at all.
3. Ghostbusters (1984) – The Streams
Egon Spengler issues a stern warning when the proton packs are first presented in Ghostbusters: “Do not cross the streams.” Egon makes it plain that this is not a good idea. The movie’s final act pits them against an unusual foe: a 100-foot-tall incarnation of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. They have tried everything to stop it, so they decide to break the single most crucial proton pack rule. The crossing streams hit the marshmallow man, causing him to explode. His liquefied remnants also crash directly on top of their persistent adversary, EPA inspector Walter Peck.
4. Home Alone (1990) – Tarantula
We all witnessed the amount of fun Kevin McCallister has while alone in the movie. Kevin watches TV, consumes junk food, and snoops through his brother’s room when his family leaves for vacation without him. He discovers Buzz’s pet tarantula, Axl, inside. After failing to ascend a shelf, Kevin unintentionally releases it from its tank and crashes to the ground.
Marv and Harry, two novice burglars, later break into the house. Kevin foils their disastrous plans with a series of improvised booby traps. Both males are severely beaten and bruised as a result of the incident. However, when Marv grips Kevin’s leg, the tables are about to turn. When the child notices Axl wandering around, he grabs the tarantula and places it directly on Marv’s face. The thief cries in terror, and Harry tries to smash it with a crowbar but ends up hitting his partner.
5. Aliens (1986) – The Power Loader
Aliens‘ male protagonists had no idea what Ellen Ripley experienced on the Nostromo. Due to her toughness, intelligence, and ability to think quickly on her feet, she was the only survivor. They scoff when she offers to assist a crew of guys in loading the ship they will be traveling in soon. Instead, Ripley climbs into a power loader and effortlessly maneuvers around important things to demonstrate her abilities. The scene’s apparent objective is to reaffirm her competency while also providing a laugh by showing how she corrects the boys.
Cut to the end of the film, a gigantic, towering Xenomorph is threatening Little Newt. Ripley jumps into the power loader, warns the creature to stay away from the girl, and then beats it with the machine.
6. Galaxy Quest (1999) – The Omega 13
Galaxy Quest follows the stars of a once-popular Star Trek-like television show. The Omega 13, a device said to allow its operator to travel back in time by 13 seconds, was one of the story components of that fictional show. The actors are visited by real aliens known as the Thermians, who seek assistance fighting an evil extraterrestrial tyrant. They have watched the show but do not realize the stars are only actors, not actual interplanetary fighters.
During the last act, the reptile villain Sarris obtains the upper hand and begins destroying everyone and everything. Jason is surprised that the Thermians themselves have developed an Omega 13. He and co-star Gwen set it in motion, jumping back 13 seconds and earning a “do-over” that allows them to halt Sarris before he wipes out everyone.
7. Signs(2002) – The Baseball Bat
Joaquin Phoenix plays Merrill Hess, a former little league baseball player, in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. He shares a farm with his brother Graham and his two children. Merrill’s career is mentioned several times throughout the film, as is his beloved baseball bat. The tribe is trapped by aliens who have landed on Earth and are initially creating crop circles before revealing a more sinister motive.
Water is the creature’s Achilles’ heel, as the characters discover. Bo, Graham’s daughter, has a bad habit of leaving glasses of water about the house. When an alien attacks in the dramatic finale, Merrill pulls up his baseball bat and begins swinging it like he is going for a home run, each strike propels the creature into one of Bo’s water glasses, destroying its protections. Merrill’s baseball abilities have been put to unexpected use. This is also payback for Merrill’s sister-in-strange law’s years-ago final words, “Swing away,” before her untimely death.
8. Avengers: Endgame(2019): Mjolnir
It is only fitting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces Chekhov’s gun in one film and then has its pay off in another. A scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where everyone tries – and fails – to pick up Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. Only “worthy” people are said to be able to lift the weapon. The majority of the team members are unable to move it. Captain America cannot raise it, but it wiggles somewhat in his grip.
Avengers: Endgame was released some years later. The Avengers battle Thanos in the finale, and earlier wiped out half of the world’s inhabitants with a single snap of his fingers. Amid the tension-filled war, the hammer flings itself towards Captain America, and he grabs it – deeming himself worthy.
9. Hot Fuzz(2007) – The Sea Mine
The primary characters in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman, are cops and movie buffs. They find a massive stash of illicit firearms after being called to the site of a fight. Unfortunately, one of them is an old sea mine, which is not something you see every day. Nevertheless, Angel transports it to the police station and secures it in a closet.
The rest of the film follows the guys as they try to investigate a murder. They soon deduce that the Neighborhood Watch Alliance is involved in a plot. However, something unexpected happens after the evil men are apprehended, and the NWA is dismantled. The group’s final member storms into the police station, seeking retribution. During the brawl, the man accidentally detonates the sea mine, killing himself and razing the station.
10. Red Pen(2005) – The Novelty Pen
In Wes Craven’s 2005 thriller Red Eye, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Lisa Reisert, played by Rachel McAdams, is a young woman returning home from her grandmother’s burial. Jackson Rippner is sitting next to her on the plane. He appears to be a lovely guy at first, but he soon reveals himself to be an assassin planning a hit on the deputy secretary of homeland security.
Lisa is seen writing with a novelty pen with a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature on the end before all hell breaks free. When the plane lands, and she needs to get away from Jackson, it comes in handy. She stealthily pulls it out and hides it by her side until the perfect opportunity arrives, at which point she plunges it into Jackson’s neck and escapes the plane.
11. Kill Bill: Volume 2(2004): The Five-Point Exploding Heart Technique
Beatrix Kiddo is on a mission to find Bill, the man who attempted to murder her on her wedding day with his team of assassins, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. She works her way through those assassins throughout two flicks, brutally executing them as she comes closer to her ultimate victim. In one flashback sequence, Bill cites Pai Mei’s supposed Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. It is a death blow in which someone uses his fingertips to strike you at five different pressure spots on your body and then walks away. After five steps, though, your heart explodes inside your body, and you collapse to the floor, dead.
Beatrix finally reaches Bill after much bloodshed, realizing that the girl they conceived is still alive. For a brief time, it appears as if she would forego her vengeance mission to form a family with him. However, this is only a decoy. In the end, Beatrix uses the Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique on Bill, causing him to collapse and die a short time later.
12. Straw Dogs(2011) – The Bear Trap
David and Amy are a couple who move to rural Mississippi. The pair is seen setting up a bear trap on their property early on to safeguard themselves from any wild creatures that could stray.
When some local males assault Amy, the tale takes a terrible turn. The mild-mannered David is enraged by what they have done to his wife, and he transforms into an aggressively violent, vengeful angel. During the horrific conclusion, he confronts the group’s leader, a man named Charlie Venner, who was previously Amy’s boyfriend. David picks up the bear trap and snaps it around Venner’s neck, following a brawl.
13. Paul Blart: The Mall Cop(2009) – The Hot Sauce
Paul Blart likes spicy foods. The titular role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop is played by Kevin James. One of the stores at the mall he patrols gives mall cops a bottle of the substance. He carries it in his side holster, precisely where a gun would go if he was armed.
On Black Friday, a gang of robbers rushes into the mall to steal credit card codes from the cash registers, so Blart jumps on his Segway to defend the retail center. In the comic conclusion, he confronts the crew’s leader. There is a faceoff between them. Blart throws him a phone with the passcode on it, reaches into his holster, pulls out the hot sauce, and spins the top off swiftly. He hurls a large amount of it at the evil guy’s eye, forcing him to stagger backward in pain.
14. The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear(1991) – The Lion
The Naked Gun 2 ½ uses a comic version of Chekhov’s gun in the best way possible. Detective Frank Drebin commandeers a SWAT tank during a chase but quickly loses control. He drives it into the city zoo by accident. As a result, a slew of wild animals, including a lion, is released.
The film builds to a final battle between Drebin and villain Quentin Hapsburg. As the conflict intensifies, Hapsburg is tossed out of a tall building’s window. He miraculously collides with an awning, breaking his fall and allowing him to land on the sidewalk without a scratch. The lion then appears out of nowhere, fatally mauling him just as he discovers he is still alive and begins to dust himself off.
15. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery(1997) – Toothpaste and Floss
Austin’s return from being frozen for thirty years is accompanied by a barrage of jokes about his reactions to the new period and how it varies from how he is used to living. Vanessa tries to introduce him to various dental items, including a garotte wire, a plastic explosive, and a detonation device. When Dr. Evil kidnaps Austin and Vanessa, they use the toothpaste to blind the guard before swinging to safety with the floss.
16. The Shawshank Redemption(1994) – Poster, Rock, and the Bible
The Shawshank Redemption is replete with seemingly trivial details that turn out to be crucial to Andy’s tremendous escape scheme. Red gives Andy a Rita Hayworth poster, ostensibly to help him cope with loneliness but actually to hide his escape hole. The rock hammer was designed to alleviate boredom, and he proves his tremendous expertise in rock carving with the figurines in his window, making this a credible account.
Red even confirms the viewer’s lack of suspicion by stating that he once thought it would take a man six hundred years to make a pathway through the wall with it. Andy hid the rock hammer in his Bible, so no one would question it, especially given how the characters and audience compared it to what he appeared to be doing. He was confident that the warden would approve of his Bible possession and would never challenge it.
17. The Lost Boys(1987) – Antlers and Fence Post
Michael and Sam tour their Grandpa’s house early in the film, making fun of his taxidermy collection. Grandpa is also mending other aspects of his home, including erecting a garden fence with some massive wooden posts.
Grandpa’s assortment of plush dogs and beavers appear to accentuate his reputation as a bit strange but primarily harmless older man. Unfortunately, Grandpa seems to be nothing more than background amusement while the film focuses on the other characters.
Grandpa’s esoteric pastime yields dividends in the final battle as Michael beats David by impaling him on a set of deer antlers on one of the mounted animal heads. Grandpa’s Jeep unexpectedly crashes through a wall, impaling the demon and saving the day. Likewise, one of the massive fence posts flies off the vehicle’s hood, impaling the demonic creature and saving the day.
18. Gremlins(1984) – Sword
The pair of ornamental swords are featured hanging by the door of the Peltzer family home early in the film as an evident weapon but a strange wall decoration. However, they are visible as Billy opens his father’s gift. He fiddles with one of them, allowing it to be exposed for a second longer than necessary but not drawing attention to it above the other decorations in the room.
Lynn seeks around the house for the others after killing a couple of the gremlins with household appliances, but she is grabbed by one of the monsters lurking in the Christmas tree. When Billy returns home just in time, he pulls one of the swords from the wall, kills the creature, and shoots it into the flaming hearth.
19. Shaun of the Dead(2004) – Rifle
After Shaun’s breakup with Liz, Ed consoles him, and the two begin making up stories about the folks at the Winchester pub. Due to his knife skills, harsh demeanor, and ‘trophy wife’ landlady Bernie, Ed theorizes that landlord John is a member of the North London Mafia. This causes him to believe that the Winchester gun on the wall is genuine.
Shaun’s skepticism in the story is further demonstrated when confronted by a zombified John. In addition, he throws the gun and uses it to beat him in the face instead of shooting him. Finally, Ed is proven correct when the gun accidentally goes off, and Shaun stands fixed.
Chekhov’s Gun is all about making and honoring promises to the audience. It all boils down to plant and payback.
When a writer draws the audience’s attention to something, such as a gun, the expectation is that the character will use the gun at some point during the story. If the pistol is not utilized, viewers will be upset, wondering why there were so many close-up shots if it was unnecessary to the plot.
Chekhov’s gun works for viewers because it builds and meets expectations. Chekhov’s Gun hypothesis can help writers figure out which elements to add and how to please and confound audience expectations.