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Crafting a Story Finale: The Chekhov’s Gun Principle

Back in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when the first act is about to end, Edward asks Vivian “What do you do?”, without hesitating, Vivian replies “Anything but mouth kissing, it’s too personal”, and then they close their deal. Later on, when the third act is moving forward, Vivian stares at Edward while he is sleeping and kisses him in the mouth, a recursive scene at the end of the movie whereby both kiss at Vivian’s fire escape. This way, in Pretty Woman, Chekhov’s Gun goes off.

Anton Chekhov is a Russian playwriter, novelist, and medician who is mostly known for writing short stories. Bearing a gruesome past, like being left behind to fend for himself in his birthplace of Taganrog by his father and family when fell bankrupt and fled to Moscow to avoid prison, he wrote some of today’s writing masterpieces with a tyrannical father figure as the main antagonist like “Three Years”, “My Life”, or “The Cherry Orchard”. His writing style and narrative technique reshaped the canon of modern literature, becoming a cornerstone of short-story writing (Ladsun, 2018).

According to Sergei Shchukin, an art collector who quotes this principle in his Memoirs, “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, it absolutely must go off in the second or third chapter. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” was documented in many letters written by Chekhov to young playwriters, as advice, letters later retrieved by Shchukin himself. Despite this, it is widely summed up thus, “If in the first act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, do not put it there.” (Semenova, Delocque-Fourcaud, 2018).

In Poetics, Aristotle says that every history’s core is a three-act structure stated thus:

  • Act I (or The Setup)

  • Act II (or The Confrontation)

  • Act III (or The Resolution)

Although there have been several names to refer to the acts of this structure, the three-act story became paramount in storytelling. As a consequence, to make Chekhov’s Gun Principle work, the pistol must be shown on the wall during the Setup phase of the story. Regarding film scripts, the Setup occurs between pages 15 and 25, considering it is a 120 pages script, ergo, a two-hour movie.

It is important to state that Chekhov’s Gun Principle does not apply forcibly to a gun, pistol, rifle, or any tool at all; it defines a metaphor depicting any dramatic asset that may serve as a game-changer in the Resolution phase of the story.

Figure 1: David Bradley, Simon Pegg, and NickFrost in Hot Fuzz (Universal Pictures, 2007)

Therefore, if one was to refer to Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990), where the pistol hung on the wall anticipate Vivian's statement by which under no circumstances she will do mouth kissing; and the pistol going off occurs when she finally falls for him and kisses him in the mouth in the climax of the story, in the final act. In this case, if the gun was not supposed to be fired –the ending scene– the gust must be taken away from the outset, in other words, Vivian shall not establish her rule whatsoever.

As paramount in storytelling, a three-act structure is the ultimate kind of story. However, there are some variants of the settled system. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, documented in "Save the Cat" is one the most known nowadays among screenwriters (Snyder, 2005). The Beat Sheet is conformed thus:

  • Act I

    • Opening Image

    • Set-Up

    • Theme Stated

    • Catalyst

    • Debate

  • Act II

    • Break Into Two

    • B-Story

    • Fun and Games

    • Midpoint

    • Bad Guys Close In

    • All Is Lost

    • Dark Night

  • Act III

    • Break Into Three

    • Finale

    • Final Image

The core three-act structure remains a pillar of this structure, but Snyder adds some other substructures to support and format properly each one of the three acts.

Thus said, for scriptwriters who are working under the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, Chekhov’s Gun shall be used like so; the pistol hung on the wall must be shown after the Opening Image and just before the Debate, and the pistol has to go off by the Finale, before the Final Image.

Figure 2: Khary Payton in The Walking Dead (American Movies Classics, 2016)

Exploring some other examples from some of the most popular movies and TV series, we can find Chekhov’s Gun in The Sound of Music, Hot Fuzz, The Walking Dead, and the Avengers Saga.

In The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965), the pistol on the wall can be found in the song Edelweiss, which is sung by the Austrian Baron von Trapp to his children and presented as a proud Austrian song. The pistol goes off when Edelweiss is reprised at the climax of the story, causing the audience to sing along with the family, remarking on the greatness of Austria despite occupying forces taking over.

In Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007), a naval mine is shown when Officers Angel and Butterman visit Mr Webley when investigating a crime; towards the end, the mine explodes in the commissary. This is a true example where Chekhov’s Gun is an actual gun or tool.

In the second episode of the seventh season of The Walking Dead (Darabont, 2016), a new character is introduced, King Ezekiel and a peculiar pet, Shiva, a tiger. The loaded gun is here. Fast forward to the final battle, in the last episode of the same season, Carl, a major character, is about to get killed by the antagonist when Shiva suddenly appears to save him by eating some of the antagonist’s men. The gun has gone off.

Finally, here’s an example where the three-act structure is not depicted in a 120-minute movie or a TV season, but in two different movies that belong to the same fictional universe. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), it is stated that Thor’s hammer can only be lifted by those who are worthy of it. Here it is stated the hung rifle. Years later, in the final battle of Avengers: Endgame (Russo, 2019), Captain America lifts the hammer and possesses the power of Thor while battling against the antagonist. the rifle has been fired.

Figure 3: Chris Evans in Avengers: Endgame (Walt Disney Pictures, 2019)

On a final note, Chekhov's Gun Principle is a dramatic asset that can work plainly whether in film scripts, play-writing, or prose-writing, along with others. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that, speaking of art, writing included, rules are made to be broken. Accordingly, this principle can also work backwards. For instance, in a crime novel, it is usual for writers to leave several loose ends in order to avoid spoiling the murder's revealing (MasterClass Articles, 2022). Certainly, it is vital for storytellers to know how principles and rules work if they plan to break them.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle, N. (1968). Aristotle: Poetics. In Oxford University Press eBooks. Oxford University Press.

Darabont, F. (Creator). (2010 - 2022) The Walking Dead [TV Series]. American Movie Classics.

Lasdun, J. (2018, February 22). The wonder of Chekhov. The Guardian.

Marshall, G. (Director). (1990). Pretty Woman[Film]. Touchstone Pictures.

MasterClass. (2022, September 2). Writing 101: What Is Chekhov’s Gun? Learn How to Use Chekhov’s Gun In Your Writing - 2023 - MasterClass.

Russo, J., & Russo, A. (Directors). (2019). Avengers: Endgame [Film]. Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures.

Semenova, N., & Delocque-Fourcaud, A. (2018). The Collector: The Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces. Yale University Press.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Whedon, J. (Director). (2015). Avengers: Age of Ultron [Film]. Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures.

Wise, R. (Director). (1965). The Sound of Music [Film]. Robert Wise Productions.

Wright, E. (Director). (2007). Hot Fuzz [Film]. Universal Pictures.

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