Chekhov’s Gun: How I figured out a backwards concept

water gun, not Chekhov’s gun
Photo by Anna Shvets on

The basic principle of Chekhov’s gun: if you show a gun hanging above a fireplace in the first act, it sure better get used by the conclusion of the story.

It’s a clear illustration of foreshadowing, and using all elements of a story for a precise purpose, and not giving false promises to the reader.

Because if you show a gun hanging above a fireplace and it just sits there the entire time, the reader’s going to be disappointed and wonder why it was there.

But if you sneakily show it, and use it much later, the reader will be like “Oh my gracious, that gun that was there the whole time, it saved the day, that works so perfectly!”

Chekhov’s gun doesn’t work for me

I’m a pantser when it comes to writing. I dive headfirst into a story, do little to no pre-research or planning, and make stuff up as I go along.

I can’t hang a gun over a mantle during some scene, and know how I’m going to use it later. I can’t predict the twists and turns my story’s going to take. So Chekhov’s gun always used to be a nice literary principle I wrote essays about in school but was a tiny, distant target I couldn’t hit in my own writing. It just didn’t make sense.

Until I figured out how to work it backwards.

When I reach the end of a novel, I have a tendency to get my characters into a big dramatic fight. Out of nowhere, some giant explosion happens. Or somebody gets into a confusing duel with a metaphorical ghost.

So to make the big climactic fight make more sense, I use Chekhov’s gun in reverse–I know when the gun (or explosion, or metaphorical ghost) has to get used to cause climactic drama. Just, when I wrote the past 40,000 words, I had no clue that I needed that gun there in the future.

So after I finish the story, I sneak into some earlier scene where some characters are talking by a fireplace, and sorta just Photoshop a gun into existence, so it can be there later when I need it.

It’s almost like, as a writer, I have the ability to go back in time and change the course of my (hi)story.

(is that a weird pun to end this on? my history/my story? Oh well. I’ve got awesome time changing powers, I can always re-write the ending if I want.)

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