By Shawn Van Horn
What is the Chekhov's Gun movie trope, how does it actually work, and why is it so effective?
Movies are filled with tropes, those sometimes overused plot devices that we can see coming from a mile away. Sometimes it comes off as lazy, other times we are misdirected in such a way that we might not expect it. Even when we see a trope coming, many movie fans don't seem to mind. We have seen so many films with the cool hero doing his cool calm walk while something explodes behind him, but we love it because, well, it looks cool. There's also the lone wolf badass good guy in action films trope. The horror genre is filled with tropes, from the final girl to the killer never being dead at the end. We can predict every act, but horror fans often love the comfort of the known.
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Another trope is called "Chekhov's Gun." Chances are you've heard of it, even if you don't know what it is. It gets its name from the late 19th century Russian short story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov. While the trope's definition isn't given away in a name, once it's explained, it's very easy to understand. There are probably thousands of examples of "Chekhov's Gun" that have been used throughout the history of cinema, some of which you may have not even picked up on when you watched them play out.
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What Is Chekhov's Gun?
Anton Chekhov has long been regarded as one of our literary greats. Even though he passed away 119 years ago, his legacy still lives on. Some of that has been from his works being adapted to films, such as Sea Gull, directed by Sidney Lumet, and Laurence Olivier's Three Sisters. Much of what Chekhov is remembered for is his style, which is still studied by writers and actors today.
The most enduring part of Chekhov's style is one you might not even be aware of. It's not overly complicated like some of his work could be. In fact, you can find Chekhov's style in anything from horror to Marvel movies. Heck, you can even see it in professional wrestling. That style involves the trope of "Chekhov's Gun." The trope comes from this writing rule from Chekhov: “If in the first act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”
The meaning of Chekov's gun is pretty straightforward. If you hint at something show something big in your writing, or in a movie, you have to do something with the hint. You can't have a gun shown, only for it to then disappear and never be seen again, or else what is the point of even showing it? If a gun is seen in a movie, you know at some point, usually in the second act as a move that forces the plot, or at the end when it's needed the most, it's going to be used. Not doing so is a massive disappointment that only confuses movie watchers.
Examples of the Chekhov's Gun Trope in Movies
Look at any of your favorite movies, and chances are, in many of them, you will have a "Chekhov's Gun" trope moment. Let's take Steven Spielberg's Jaws for example. In the climax of the film (not the first act, as the rule is a bit flexible), Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) are on The Orca, looking to kill the murderous great white shark. There are oxygen tanks clanging around on board. Hopper takes one to dive underwater. Spielberg shows us the tanks many times, not lingering on them so long as to be obvious, but reminding us over and over that they are there. More so, Brody later throws one of the tanks in the shark's mouth. The tank stays there, not eaten or spit out. We don't only have "Chekhov's Gun" shown to us, Spielberg is now waving it at the camera. That tank isn't there just because the writer got bored and needed to fill up the page. It has a reason. Everything in writing, in a movie, must have a reason for being included. We now know how the shark is going to die. It's not the biggest of surprises when, a few minutes later, Brody shoots the tank, and the shark explodes.
Another example can be found in Joe Dante's Gremlins. Early on in the movie, when we're being shown the inside of the Peltzer home, the family who adopts the Mogwai Gizmo, we see swords displayed on the wall as a decoration next to the living room door. Whenever anyone shuts the door the swords rattle and fall to the floor. It's not done excessively, treating the audience like idiots who won't be able to figure it out. Instead, it only happens a few times, just enough to make us aware of their existence. Consciously or unconsciously, we know those swords are going to be used. It makes for a triumphant moment when Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) later comes home to find his mother, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), being attacked by a gremlin. Billy immediately grabs a sword and decapitates the creature.
The “Chekov’s Gun" trope has a long playout in the Back to the Future franchise. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is in an alternate 1985, where he sees Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) watching A Fistful of Dollars. It's the famous scene where Clint Eastwood is shot, only to reveal that he has a steel plate hidden on his chest, a sort of bulletproof vest. Nothing comes of it here, but in Back to the Future Part III, with Marty in 1885 and calling himself Clint Eastwood, he has a duel with an evil man named Bufford Tannen (also played by Wilson). Tannen shoots Marty dead with a bullet to the body, but we know better. It's not a shock when Marty stands up and reveals the steel plate he has protecting him.
You can go on and on with examples of the "Chekhov's Gun" trope. There's the Little Green Men's obsession with the claw machine in Toy Story 3, only for them to save our heroes from certain death with a mechanical claw. The Winchester rifle is referred to several times in Shaun of the Dead, which means it's used later. There's Leonardo DiCaprio's flamethrower in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the knives in Knives Out as well. Marvel uses it in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Paul Bettany). Throughout the film, no one can lift Thor's hammer. We know someone will, so it's not out of left field when it's Vision who is able to lift the hammer. A very recent example is Evil Dead Rise. Very early on we are shown a wood chipper sitting unused in the parking garage of an apartment building. There's no way someone isn't going into that thing. The list could go on and on.
Why Does the Chekhov's Gun Trope Work?
Why does such a predictable trope like "Chekhov's Gun" work then, when it can be so predictable? Don't the best movies thrive on being original and shocking, giving us something we haven't seen before? Sure, but no matter what, certain parts of drama must always play out the same way. Showing a gun in a film and deciding not to use it does not make for shocking, great art, it just lies to the audience. Look at professional wrestling for example. If you've watched it, you've seen it a hundred times where someone pulls a table or chair out from under the ring. They might not get to use it immediately. Their opponent perhaps stops them at the moment, leaving the chair or table just sitting there. Minutes can pass, but we know that a table or chair is being used. It happens every time. A wrestling crowd would be livid if the weapon was never seen again.
The "Chekhov's Gun" trope works because it means something. We don't have a gun shown, only for a character to later use it with no consequence. It matters when that gun is used. If used in the second act, "Chekhov's Gun" can ignite a plot, sending it off in a new direction. If used at the end, as many of these examples show, "Chekhov's Gun" is the hero that saves the day. It's part of the protagonist, part of the happy ending, part of what makes everything work. It's a cathartic release when the shark dies in Jaws or when Woody and company are saved in Toy Story 3. Some tropes can for sure be overdone and tiring, but not all of them. We need "Chekhov's Gun."