Chekov’s Bear Arms, Or “Does the Gun Have to Go Off in Act Three?”

If you’re going to show the audience a friendly monster in Act One, he had better have an adorable temper tantrum in Act Two. (Image: Fizzgig the Muppet from The Dark Crystal, a brown ball of fur with his mouth open, showing multiple rows of very sharp teeth. The background is full of “AAAAAAA”, representing his screaming.)

Author Anton Chekhov gave variations on the following writing advice several times during his life:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.”

This morning, I had a conversation with several other people about putting this into practice. A writer friend (and one of the luminous poetry authors in Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber) is writing a fiction piece in which a gun appears on a mantlepiece in Act One. The author wanted to know: does it have to go off in Act Three?

The answer: Yes and no.

Chekhov’s advice isn’t literally about firing guns. It’s about making sure you don’t make the audience look at anything without explaining, at some point, why you made them look at it.

With a gun, the easiest way to explain why you made the audience look at the gun in Act One is to shoot somebody later in the plot. But it’s not the only thing you can do with a gun.

Take, for example, my upcoming novel. One of the two POV characters carries not one gun, but two – everywhere. He’s always got a sidearm and a smaller weapon jammed into his boot.

In the novel, the reader sees both of these guns in the very first chapter. Neither one is fired, though. Instead, the fact the guns were drawn but not fired (a) says something about the character’s personality (he’s kind of paranoid), (b) says something about the circumstances of his job (he probably should be), and (c) foreshadows several interactions that take place later in the book.

In Act Two, we see this character’s guns again, briefly – when he’s frisked for them. Here, more character-building is taking place. Losing his weapons makes the character feel more vulnerable, right at the very point of the plot in which he feels it is most important that he not be vulnerable.

Finally, in Act Three, the character fires a gun. Ironically, it’s not one of the two guns he was toting around in the previous acts! He’s lost both of those–turns out he was wrong about which part of the plot he would most need to not be vulnerable at. But the appearance of the guns in Act One and the loss of them temporarily in Act Two have both led up to this moment. We saw the guns; we saw them disappear; now we see a gun (but not those guns) fired.

Firing the gun is just one way to explain to the audience why you made them look at the gun in previous acts, though. It’s by far the easiest, but there are plenty of other options, depending on your plot. Maybe the gun is a family antique that was stolen and finally returned to its owner (or used for another nefarious purpose). Maybe the gun jams at a crucial moment. Maybe someone gets pistol-whipped instead of shot. And so on.

Oh, and when you first introduce the gun in Act One? Make it do double duty. Don’t just say “and by the way, this dude has a gun.” For example, in my friend’s “gun on the mantlepiece” scenario, the author might reveal the presence of the gun on the mantlepiece by mentioning it as a detail the protagonist notices while they are hanging out in the room, waiting for the antagonist to show up. The protagonist might draw certain conclusions about the antagonist from the presence of the gun. These conclusions might or might not be correct (I use “not correct” a lot in my work).

Then, the gun drops out of the plotline. When it resurfaces, it should do so in a way that reveals whether or not the protagonist’s conclusions in Act One were correct, in addition to doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing in Act Three (killing someone, jamming so that the shooter is now in even more peril, whatever).

That’s a lot of work for one gun. In good fiction, though, everything does a lot of work. The kind of novels people read over and over, the kind they recommend to their friends, are the ones in which readers notice something new every time they read–because everything in the book is doing double or triple duty.