The art of never leaving narrative questions unanswered…
Have you ever walked out of a movie and thought–
"I’m not sure how I feel about that ending, it kind of came out of nowhere.”
While it is sometimes a good thing to misdirect your audience, you have an obligation to make your narrative choices count, otherwise things can come across as random or unfinished.
This is what we would describe as a plot hole, which is where a story thread is ignored, illogical, or simply has no real impact on the outcome of the plot.
So, how exactly does “Chekhov’s gun” come into this?
Anton Chekhov, a famous Russian playwright who is credited for a lot of narrative theory, came up with the analogy of a rifle/gun to explain why it is important to remove erroneous plot points from a story.
To explain it simply, if you put a gun in a scene, it needs to be fired by the end, unless you want the audience to walk away thinking “what the hell was the point of that gun?”
What Chekhov means by this is that writers should avoid planting seeds in the audience’s mind that they will expect to be addressed later in the story.
In short, if you’re going to make a big deal out of something, it better payoff.
Not only does it annoy the audience, depending on how big the plot hole was, but you have precious little time to tell your story — don’t waste time on things that aren’t important.
This concept can also be used in reverse, where if you know you have a major plot point coming up, you plant the seed that this outcome is a possibility within this universe. This is what is known as telegraphing, or its more subtle cousin, foreshadowing.
While these concepts are essentially the same, I see telegraphing as a more purposeful establishing of a plot point, while foreshadowing is often a wink to the audience intended to give the product more rewatch value.
Foreshadowing is a bit more like easter eggs that reward observant viewers. However, they are all part and parcel of the Chekhov’s gun principle.
For example, A Quiet Place (2018) does an incredible job of telegraphing plot points — Marcus plays in the car that will become important in the third act, Lee attempts to fix a faulty hearing aid for Regan, Evelyn accidentally pulls up a nail that she later stands on.
These are all small occurrences that make later events more plausible.
While the scene car might seem minor, if they hadn’t established this earlier in the story, the fact it was used later may have seemed too coincidental and lessened the impact of that moment overall.
Similarly, if Evelyn didn’t give birth, it wouldn’t technically have been a problem, but would have made her being pregnant seem slightly pointless. This is by no means a perfect movie, but it is very effective in how it uses the set up/payoff model.
We see the same thing in the movie Passengers (2016), in which Jim goes on a space walk during Act One. While this might seem erroneous, it sets up the possibility for later when Jim has to vent the reactor.
Similarly, everyone remembers “don’t cross the streams!” from Ghostbusters (1984), which sets the scene for later mayhem when they do, in fact, cross the streams in order to save the day.
A very literal Chekhov’s gun is found in the movie Shaun of the Dead (2004), with the rifle behind the bar at The Winchester, which Shaun and Ed have a drunken conversation about just prior to all hell breaking loose.
These examples all hint to instrumental plot points within these films, which help grease the wheels for those payoffs later.
Ah, the plot thickens…
Now, I know some of you might be thinking, I don’t want my audience to know what is going to happen that’s too cliche and formulaic.
However, there is a difference between formula and narrative plausibility, and audiences like to have some sense that they know or can predict what will happen next.
For example, The Others (2001) has one of the most shocking misdirects in film history, but once the final reveal comes we realise that the plot points had been leading in one direction and are now flipped on their head.
Similarly, after the major reveal in The Sixth Sense (1999), while it had felt like a surprise, when you watch the movie back you find all the hints the filmmakers placed throughout to make that misdirect feel “earned”.
Even if you intend to confuse the audience with a purposeful misdirect, known as a red herring, the Chekhov’s gun principle will still apply. This will still involve you setting up an expectation but then subverting it.
The enjoyment of a red herring is the fact that the audience sees they were mislead, if you pull things out of left field with no context, more often than not the audience will feel duped.
Sometimes this pays off, for example, in Memento (2000) where it turns out Leonard was on a pointless mission, but the overall cleverness of the film makes this forgivable.
Other times, it leaves the audience with a sour taste in their mouth, such as in Bushwick (2017) when we learn that Stupe knew his family was dead all along and you can’t help but think“what was the point of that?”
We also have the grand high emperor of creators pulling plot points out of their butts with the “Dan was Gossip Girl all along” reveal, which made audiences understandably angry.
It’s clear this idea was dreamed up as a not so clever “gotcha” despite being inconsistent with what had happened in the show. Understandably, audiences felt cheated because it was illogical and stupid.
This is why we should expect to be the rule here, not the exception.
Unfortunately, we writers can’t always control how our stories pan out on screen, since sometimes entire plots points will end up on the cutting room floor, leaving only a vague hint of it within the narrative.
There isn’t really a lot we can do about this, other than try to make our plot structure less complicated to avoid the risk of storylines being cut.
This might sound limiting, but there is no real point to making stories needlessly convoluted, and we should always be looking at our stories with a editors eye and asking ourselves “if I don’t intent to fire this gun, do I really need it?”.
Thank you for reading. Make sure to leave a comment and share this with other writers.
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