Chekhov’s Gun is Bullshit

Under the Green Desk Lamp…

‘Chekhov’s Gun’ is a dramatic principle for writers, meant to teach us that ‘every element of a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed’ (Source).

In its most basic form, it famously states that if there is a gun on the wall in one chapter, it must go off in a later chapter. Otherwise, it should not be there.

What a load of bullshit!

While certainly well-intentioned—for it is good to avoid the extraneous, and reductive editing is almost always the surest route to perfection—the principle at its simplest entirely ignores the myriad reasons to include such an item in a story.

To say that a gun must go off or not exist at all is to limit the writer’s freedom and usher all creative narration into cookie cutter niches of content. Guns must equate to shootouts. Attraction must result in sex. Loss must evoke retribution or vindication. It’s all very formulaic, and in the end we end up with a far less promising array of potentials.

The notion itself only attempts to force stories and thought into a more linear pattern, allowing less growth in exchange for more action. It’s predictable, trite, and self-limiting.

Let us look briefly to an example. The Bruce Springsteen song ‘Galveston Bay’ (Link) tells the story of two Americans with very different experiences of the Vietnam war and its resulting influx of immigrants. Le, a native of Vietnam, flees his war-torn country for the alluring promise of America. Billy sees the immigrants coming and changing the life he’d always known. When, at the end of the song, Billy waits for Le in an alley with a Ka-bar knife, Checkhov’s principle would clearly state that the knife must come into play.

But it doesn’t. Billy slips the knife back into his pocket and lets Le pass—finally understanding the joint nature of their struggles, and realizing that his destructive impulse was not a true solution.

This is a far more interesting and dramatic narrative than another simple back-alley knifing. Had the knife not been included, we would struggle to understand the tension and conflict of Billy’s mindset. Had it been used, we would not see his development.

So, dear writers, while catch-all principles can serve as useful reminders, let us not fall into the habit of taking them as sacrosanct. Tiny details can serve to develop character, and show choices far beyond their most obvious functions. Guns aren’t always fired, hurt doesn’t always result in glory, and kisses, sadly, aren’t always forever. Sometimes, they are simply experiences we must pass through, learning what we can.

After all, owning a gun can tell you a lot about a character, but the decision not to use one when provoked can show you far more. We should always be mindful of this.

-Brad OH Inc.

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