Anton Chekhov, a Russian author and playwright (and doctor) is often considered a master storyteller. Author Vladimir Nabokov ends his essay “A Reading of Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’” with this:
All the traditional rules of story telling have been broken in this wonderful short story of twenty pages or so. There is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories every written.
The term “Chekhov’s gun” comes from a bit of advice Chekhov shared with other writers. In an 1889 letter to playwright Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, Chekhov wrote:
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
This concept is fleshed out a bit in Memoirs, in which S. Shchukin quotes Chekhov as saying this:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a 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.
Chekhov is warning against extraneous detail. A gun is a looming image. It’s full of meaning; it has the potential for danger and death. To give it attention is a signal to readers that they should pay attention. If nothing comes of it, readers can feel duped. Every detail must have purpose. If you give something significance early in the story, follow through on it.
When I think of this advice from Chekhov, I often think of “The Intruder,” a short story by Andre Dubus. In it, a thirteen-year-old boy goes off into the woods with his gun to play out adventures. In reality, he simply shoots tin cans, but in his imagination he’s the hero triumphing over Nazis and saving beautiful girls from rivers. His desire to be strong and heroic is clear. The gun has the potential to be a force for good, but it carries with it the possibility of danger. So, when his parents go out for the evening and his older sister invites a boy over (a football player, someone he finds intimidating), he decides to take out his gun and clean it and the tension mounts. Of course, something has to happen with that gun. Dubus knew this. In a moment of fear and uncertainty, the boy makes a choice that cannot be undone.
Of course, Chekhov wasn’t referring to guns only. That image stands in for a larger concept. The “gun” could be any detail, be it an object, a setting, or even a circumstance. Think of Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peer,” a story that follows two women in the kitchen of Minnie Wright, a woman suspected of murdering her husband, while their own husbands search other areas of the house for clues. In the first paragraph Martha Hale is called to leave her home in a hurry and she lingers for a moment, lamenting that she must leave “her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.” This idea—of leaving “things half done” and the circumstances under which a woman might do this—echoes throughout the story and gives insight into Minnie’s experience in the days leading up to her husband’s death.
Details have power. They can create meaning and expectation, whether you intend them to or not. If you don’t pay close attention, a misplaced or misleading detail can destroy the reading experience.