The Craft: Chekhov’s Gun

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Lately on the blog, I have been delving into the concepts that will help you write better short stories. Last time, we delved into Poe’s Unity of Effect. Today, we’ll look at how you can use another tool, “Chekhov’s Gun,” to sharpen your stories.


Chekhov’s gun
Chekhov is one of the great short story writers ever. But don’t take my word for it. Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, E. L. Doctorow and many others have admired his stories.

One of the chief complaints about Chekhov’s stories and plays is that “nothing ever happens.” The protagonists often seem listless and the plots are slow or non-existent. Tom Clancy he’s not. But if you can get past that aspect of his stories, the style, tone and atmosphere are entrancing and he seems to carry it all off without you really noticing. It’s a style of no-style. Unlike writers like James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy there is a distinct style, but you’re not being hit over the head with it. It’s something I deeply admire and, to some extent, hope to emulate. 

But I digress. What is Chekhov’s Gun? Put simply, it’s the principle that in a short story you don’t have time or words, to waste. So, if you mention a gun in an early scene, you damn well better make sure it gets fired later. In Chekov’s own words from a letter dated Nov. 1, 1889:

Нельзя ставить на сцене заряженное ружье, если никто не имеет в виду выстрелить из него. Нельзя обещать.

Or, in English:

You must not put a loaded gun on stage, if no one intends to shoot it. You must not make any promises [you don’t intend to keep]!

Apparently, this was one of his favorite dictums, and there are many people who recall him saying it.

Good advice. So, what does that mean for me in practical terms? Lately, in my writing, I’ve been really focused on trimming the fat. Long-winded descriptions—something I’ve indulged in in the past—are out. Long descriptions of what characters look like physically are out and short descriptions—one paragraph long—are in. Instead, I let the dialogue and actions flesh out that 1-paragraph description, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the details, the fine lines, of that character’s face. And also out are “Chekhov’s guns.” Editing my latest story, “The Ghul of Yazd” and my new horror novella, I’ve been cutting out sentences, paragraphs, chapters and things that don’t propel the plot, develop characters or serve some other necessary purpose. I’m not making any promises I can’t keep.

Did Chekhov own a gun?
Apparently, yes. I wondered about this because Russian gun laws seem fairly strict.

I figure with all his stories about hunting, he probably did. And after a little research, I found some letters describing his interaction with guns. Interestingly, none of them describe him actually shooting the guns himself. First, a letter to his sister on May 14, 1890.

No one speaks of spring but the ducks. Ah, what masses of ducks! Never in my life have I seen such abundance. They fly over one’s head, they fly up close to the chaise, swim on the lakes and in the pools—in short, with the poorest sort of gun I could have shot a thousand in one day.

And from another letter to his friend Alexey Suvorin on April 8, 1892, there’s a very Chekhovian moment on a hunting trip:

The artist Levitan is staying with me. Yesterday evening I went out with him shooting. He shot at a snipe; the bird, shot in the wing, fell into a pool. I picked it up: a long beak, big black eyes, and beautiful plumage. It looked at me with surprise. What was I to do with it? Levitan scowled, shut his eyes, and begged me, with a quiver in his voice: “My dear fellow, hit him on the head with the butt-end of your gun.” I said: “I can’t.” He went on nervously, shrugging his shoulders, twitching his head and begging me to; and the snipe went on looking at me in wonder. I had to obey Levitan and kill it. One beautiful creature in love the less, while two fools went home and sat down to supper.

So, apparently, he knew what he was talking about when it came to guns.

Further reading
Haven’t read Chekhov’s short stories? Here’s a great place to start:

For more on his thoughts on writing and daily life, nothing beats the letters from the man himself:

  • A Life in Letters from Penguin Classics.
  • And The New York Times has a great article on Melikhovo, Russia, where Chekhov had a country estate.

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