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Chekhov’s Gun: How to Ruin a Story in a Perfect Way

Chekhov’s Gun works like this. Even though I must warn you: If you haven’t been in the military the following little story will probably sound alienating to you. But as a recruit, you quickly develop a weirdly intimate relationship with your rifle. You know it inside out, you keep it in perfect condition and out of the mud. You never ever leave it out of your sight and you sleep next to it when you’re in the field. You’re always mindful of where the muzzle is pointed, you’re always aware if it’s loaded, a round is in the chamber, or the safety is disengaged. Even if you know your gun is unloaded and on safe, you treat your weapon as if it was loaded.

There’s a purpose to it. It’s for your safety and everyone else’s. In my platoon, there was one recruit, though, who was more than careless when it came to his rifle. The rest of us knew it was only a matter of time until it would go off.

The Drama With Dramatic Principles

Safety was especially important on manoeuvre when everyone was issued with blank or even live ammunition. Being on military exercise can get messy. It’s a lot like a live-action role-play. That being said, these wargames can have an entertaining aspect if the surrounding story is thought out sufficiently carefully. That wasn’t always the case. During my time in the German military, Redland was usually invading our beloved Blueland, which we had to defend in one way or the other.

The underlying stories were quite crude and generic because, frankly, officers and sergeants are not playwrights trained in the art of dramatization. This often led to contradictions. The sergeant who gave us orders an hour ago suddenly posed an enemy intruder to the camp. The day after, our instructors literally lost the plot and forgot where the imaginary enemy had moved to since yesterday. In short, our wargame was lacking dramatic principles, the kind of invisible mechanics of storytelling that make a narrative work – or not.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov’s Gun is one of those concepts. It was coined by Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright and writer of short stories who lived around the 1900s. His principle goes like this:

One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.

You may have come across other versions. The type of weapon varies, but the idea is the same: You don’t want to alienate your audience by making false promises. Of course, this isn’t limited to guns either. Any prop or plot point that may invoke a feeling of anticipation or an adrenalin rush could serve as Chekhov’s Gun. Anything that – if not picked up later in the story – leaves you with an uncomfortable sense of unfinished busine–.

That distinguishes Chekhov’s Gun from a Red Herring in that a Red Herring has the purpose of distracting the viewer from something else. In the best-case scenario, your anticipation and dissatisfaction are resolved and make way for something surprisingly better. Just like a really good magic trick.

Chekhov’s principle, on the other hand, calls out superfluous story aspects that don’t serve any purpose. As such, they may be seemingly small. For instance, in films, it has become a trope that characters never cough randomly. If they do, they die, turn into a zombie or at the very least get mildly sick later on. If they don’t, it may provoke a feeling of betrayal or even rage in the moviegoer.

This of course is in stark contrast to real life, in which people can cough randomly and nobody cares. That is before the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic I should say. In any case, as much as Chekhov’s Gun is an important dramatic principle, I tend to find it quite unrealistic when it’s applied.

Chekhov’s Gun and the Unkept Promises of Life

Unlike a play, life is full of unkept promises. That self-defence class you took last week may never be relevant again. A keen observer of your life may ask why you took it then. It’s entirely possible that you remember how to defend yourself against a knife attack 30 years later and it’ll all make sense plotwise.

What I find more likely is that this one class influences your life without anyone even noticing; including you. Maybe it boosts your confidence a tiny bit so you acted differently in a later situation. The promise is kept in silence so to speak. But inevitably, lots of props and plot points in our lives may end up as loose ends.

Confusingly enough, that doesn’t mean Chekhov’s Gun isn’t applicable to real life. We could see it as a dramatic manifestation of one of Paul Watzlawick’s axiom of communicaiton: “We cannot not communicate“. Say you’re on the experimental, maybe even psychopathic side, try putting a cake on the dinner table just out of reach of your two-year-old. Don’t address it, don’t talk about it, just put it away after dinner without commentary. Repeat that randomly until the kid is 18. But don’t be surprised if nobody visits you in the retirement home.

Directing Our Lives

If you appreciate terrifying thoughts like this, we could think of ourselves as writers, directors and protagonists of our own lives. What that means is that anything we do matters. We must be careful with our props and promises, intentional or unintentional. Even if we accept our role as the masters of our lives, it’s sheer impossible to account for all the moving parts of our own storyline all the time. We’ll inevitably make mistakes.

I find that a good way to think about our behaviour and that of others. Essentially, we’re all directing a complex unwritten play as it unfolds. In other words, we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves and others. Assuming ineptitude before suspecting malevolence sounds like a good rule of thumb to me. I suspect that this circumstance accounts for a large number of unkept promises.

If we think of a novel, a theatre play, or film as a form of escapism, this notion becomes even clearer. Fiction can provide an escape into a world in which everything has a purpose and everything comes together in the end. (Unless we’ve been waiting for Godot.) But if Chekhov’s principle is disregarded in this carefully calibrated fictional world, it serves as a stark reminder of the ambiguous lives from which we were trying to take a break.

When Stage and Reality Collide

I find this idea best illustrated by a little known play called Philipp Lahm. It was given in Munich, Germany in 2017. The play referenced the former German football player of the same name. Lahm is one of the most successful footballers of his generation. He won the FIFA World Cup with Germany in 2014 and numerous other championships including the UEFA Champions League with his club Bayern Munich.

An aura of celebrity and success surrounds the man. At the same time, many consider Lahm a mild-mannered, down-to-earth, likeable yet painfully dull professional. The most scandalous thing about his career, one might say, was that he never had any scandals.

The problem our Russian playwright would certainly have with the theatre play is that Philipp Lahm does not appear in the play at all. You won’t find him on stage. There’s no cameo. He’s not in the audience. Instead, the viewer watches the protagonist doing rather mundane things such as cutting his fingernails while uttering empty football phrases.

As one German critic put it, any hopes the viewer might have had for the play remain forever unfulfilled. She goes on to describe an atmosphere. The audience begs for something unexpected or shocking to happen – only to be disappointed even more. The critic concludes that, in the end, the only thing the audience is left with is to look into their own souls and realise: Philipp Lahm, that’s me.

Closing Thoughts

When planning a military exercise, being oblivious to fancy dramatic principles can have a positive side effect. Applying concepts such as Chekhov’s Gun makes a manoeuver all too comfortably foreseeable. Ignoring such principles prepares your people for one of the most extreme situations you can find yourself in: a warzone with all its chaos and ambiguities. And once you’re out of the military, you’re equally prepared to work in an office.

As for that one recruit in my platoon, I owe you some closure. We all loved the guy. Mainly because he was a hell of a skilled role player and really knew how to cheer us up. He was so much fun to be around on the manoeuvre. His name was Chekhov.