An Explanation of the Term Chekhov’s Rifle: What Not to Do

An Explanation of the Term Chekhov’s Rifle: What Not to Do

Anton Chekhov was a Russian author, playwright, and a doctor also. He is often considered a master storyteller. Chekhov’s rifle is a dramatic principle that derives from one of his letters.

 

What is Chekhov’s Rifle?

The term Chekhov’s rifle comes from a bit of advice that Chekhov shared with his fellow writers. In a letter (1 November 1889) to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky) Chekhov wrote:

”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.”

Another version of this concept is quoted in S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911):

”If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This concept basically means that you, as a writer, should not put details into your work that has no relevance to the story. Chekhov, through his advice, warned against extraneous detail. Every detail must have purpose. If you give something significance early in the story, follow through with it.

Of course, Chekhov wasn’t referring to rifles only. The image of the rifle stands for a larger concept. The rifle could be any detail — another object, a setting, any kind of detail really.

Details have power, and it seems that Chekhov knew this very well. Details can create meaning and expectation, whether you intend them to or not. No matter how big or small your details are, if you don’t pay attention, a misplaced or misleading detail can destroy the reading experience. As a writer, you don’t want to disappoint your readers, so pay close attention while placing details into your story.

How do you use details in your stories? Have you ever thought about Chekhov’s rifle before?

 
An Explanation of the Term Chekhov’s Rifle: What Not to Do
An Explanation of the Term Chekhov’s Rifle: What Not to Do