The full quote by writer Anton Chekov (or at least one variation of it) reads: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the 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 quote by Anton Chekov is often referred to as “Chekov’s gun”, and illustrates the author’s point that if something is not essential to the story, it should not be included in the story. Or, perhaps (stated somewhat differently), that if you mention a seemingly important detail in your story , it can be very annoying for the reader if it turns out to have no meaning at all later on. As a reader, you do expect some kind of payoff when interesting details are mentioned.
As an example, it would be a pretty sad state of affairs in The Lord of the Rings if Tolkien had equipped Frodo with the sword Sting, a wonderful mithril shirt, and an Elven-made crystal vial of light and then never had him make use of them at any point throughout the books.
Having read George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (and having now watched the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones), “Chekov’s gun” is also one of the reasons why I believe that a certain character (ahem…) is not as dead and gone as he might seem. Too many guns left hanging around, and none of them fired yet. Or something like that.
Of course, a writer can use red herrings to mislead and misdirect a reader’s imagination, but that is also a kind of payoff, even if it’s not the kind of payoff a reader initially imagined.
Anton Chekov is considered as one of the best short story writers and playwrights ever, and “Chekov’s gun” is a great writing tip to keep in mind whether you write plays, short stories, or novels.
Sample Chekov’s work by reading his short stories: Amazon has Stories of Anton Chekhov in both paperback and ebook format – ‘The Duel’, and ‘The Lady With The Dog’ are favourites of mine; or his plays, including Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard.
According to Wikipedia, other variations of this quote are:
- “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.”
- “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.”