This post, I’m talking plot, particularly in relation to foreshadowing. Even more specifically, I’m talking about Chekhov’s Gun.
Chekhov’s gun is simply expressed in a quote from the man himself.
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” – Anton Chekhov
Chekhov was writing for the stage, of course, where props and the elements of storytelling are sharply constrained by space, expense and the audience’s field of vision. But the principles are entirely transferable, given that as a novelist, you have control over what the reader perceives and what is foregrounded in the dialogue and description. A detailed description of a particular item, character, interaction or event without obvious service to the story dangles like a loose end, unless subsequently made relevant as a part of the plot.
So your protagonist happens to be a keen cryptic crossword fan? Odds are that some form of obscure cryptogram will appear later in the story. The heroine’s car needs a special trick to start it up when it’ cold? The villain trying to hijack it will invariably fail to execute that special sequence in the tense climax.
One of the most ritualised uses of this can be seen in the James Bond movie… well… ANY James Bond movie:
Now do you think any of the things shown to Bond may get utilised later in the film? Anyone… anyone… Bueller…. anyone?
A more nuanced (if literal) use is in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. As a stage play, the titular character’s pistols (inherited from her military father) are used and referred to at multiple points in the narrative before being used violently in the denoument in a not-entirely-unexpected way. The pistols could be used economically as both a character trait (Hedda loves to shoot with her pistols), as a symbolic item (her relationship with all manner of men, including her father, husband and lover) as well as a practical and logical plot device to finish off the play.
Chekhov’s Gun is an standard trope, a time-honoured cliche`, a well-worn device, a writing convention. This means, of course, which can be subverted. In William Gibson’s genuinely seminal Neuromancer, he does this twice, both times with weapons. The protagonist, Cage, lives a fairly marginal life where his personal safety is frequently in doubt. Cage is given a shuriken as a gift, presented as decorative… which is exactly how it remains. Later, he buys a nasty self-defence tool, the “Cobra”. Used more traditionally, he would then use it to escape a fight situation, or used more esoterically as a tool or distraction. Although he gets it out at one point, Cage realises he’s not actually an action hero and chucks it in a dumpster where it subsequently plays no further part in the narrative.
Foreshadowing is great for pacing, and for adding suspense to a work. This can be both because a reader knows exactly how it’s going to “go off” and sometimes because they don’t, or it can not go off, and you make a point by doing that in its own right. ( “…if no one is thinking of firing it.”)
The key feature is the economy of elements. In writing, the reader’s attention and memory is a finite resource. You can stretch it, but if you seriously tax it, you’re relying on every single element being so mind-blowingly interesting and well written that a reader won’t get bored or distracted and lose either the plot (bad) or interest (worse!). As a writer, I’m rarely bored by what I write (note: blatant lie), but I’m aware that I’ve got control and insight that readers don’t have access to which immerses me into that world seamlessly. I can invent all sorts of rationalisations and cross-linkages which make my world go around, but for the plot, that meta-data needs to be simplified, condensed and made explicit.
A Chekhov’s gun used poorly can result in the heavy handed symbolism or blinding neon-sign of “this is an obvious later plot point” breaking a reader’s sense of immersion or ruining their sense of discovery and journey within the narrative. Given this, you need to carefully select what you’re going to use (or creatively misuse) well in advance, and fine-tune the placement, emphasis and prominence with which your C.G. is utilised to ensure that it is:
- noted at the time
- remembered when it’s used; and
- there is significance in its re-use in the narrative.
I should make clear at this point that I’m talking about linear “traditional” plots. A detailed one-off foregrounding in a non-traditional plot, or in a “literary” novel may never be out of context, or may serve some greater thematic cause.
That isn’t the case with what I’m writing. I want my plot to be tight enough to stand scrutiny, and for my readers to be able to connect the dots and not feel like they have to surrender basic logic towards some pure literary ideal.
In my case, I’ve got a Chekhov’s gun which I introduce early in the novel, which becomes a key revelation later on. I don’t expect too many readers to intuit the exact nature of the gun, although the delightful, brilliant unpredictability of the way people’s minds work won’t render me shocked if they do. The gun in question is implied (from multiple angles) without ever being directly identified, and may even be misidentified, a situation which I profoundly hope occurs. But the point is that I add it early, expect readers to remember it, and then connect the dots for them in a “Voila!” moment at the end, without them feeling cheated or short-changed by something that seems pulled from nowhere.
There are already several dud “stage props” I’m going to have to ditch in my edit because although I quite like some of the ideas in them (and even some of the writing), they do nothing for the story. It may totally fit the milieu and say exactly what I want it to say about cultural incursion and colonialist priorities, but… does anyone really need to read it in the context of the story I’m telling?
I only really have the one (well, plus another one that’s more of an ironic echo by the time it goes off) that I need, for the simple reason that I want my readers to read, process and file my gun, wait for the climactic revelation, and then feverishly page turn (or mousewheel, I’m not fussy) back to the original mention and
marvel at my genius let the foreshadowing heighten their enjoyment of the revelation.
This particular two-step has been in my head since before I put fingers to keyboard to tap out my first para, so I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of being objective or rational in judging its execution. This particular gun needs to be held back from being used for the bulk of the novel, for perfectly good reasons of plot and suspense, but I’m concerned it will elicit sarcastic eyerolls rather than satisfied nods.