So, you want to use Chekhov’s gun principle in your story? Well, first you should know what it is and why it’s important. The term we use “Chekhov’s gun” comes from a quote of the russian writer Anton Chekhov that goes like this:
“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.”
Basically don’t add unnecessary elements in your story if those elements are not going to give a contribution to the plot.
Many people think that this principle is synonymous with foreshadowing, another literary trope. But as similar as they might seem the intention of a writer that uses Chekhov’s gun is different from the intention of a writer that uses foreshadowing.
Chekhov’s gun is about “trimming the fat”, helping a writer take away unnecessary elements that might create expectations in the audience, but will transform into a let down if those expectations are not met.
For example: if a movie spends 10 seconds on a gun hanging on the wall, the audience will think that the gun is a point of interest and will expect to see it again before the end of the movie.
But if the gun is just shown once and it has no part at all in the plot, the movie will have spent 10 precious seconds of screen time on a useless prop.
On the other hand foreshadowing is a plot device, it is meant to be an intentional hint (that almost always appear at the beginning of the story) to something that will happen later.
Let’s say that the gun hanging on the wall is taken down by character A who pretends to shoot character B as a joke. If later in the story character A will actually use the gun to shoot character B, that can be considered foreshadowing.
There are a great number of movies and TV shows that use Chekhov’s gun (Harry Potter, Breaking Bad, Game of thrones to name a few). But let’s see how Hot Fuzz, the 2007 Edgar Wright movie, sets up a great number of “guns” and fires them all by the end of the story.
First, let’s use Angel’s potted plant as an example to see how we can establish that something can be considered a “gun”.
Officer Nicholas Angel has been transferred from London to a country village named Sandford, in his journey from the city to the village he only brings with him a bag and a potted plant.
The director brilliantly gives the plant the spotlight by making Angel hold it close to him the montage that describes Angel’s ride on the train and on the taxi.
Showing the plant once wouldn’t be enough since the audience might focus more on the action and the story and completely forget about the plant.
So it’s important to remind them of it. During a scene in act 2 Nicholas tells his new partner Butterman that he keeps a potted plant in his room because he thinks it helps him stay healthy and relieves from stress.
The payoff doesn’t necessarily have to be a groundbreaking event that completely changes the story, but it must at least play an important role during a scene.
The plant finally plays a role in the story towards the end of act 2. When Nicholas is fighting Armstrong, one of the supermarket’s employees, he’s struggling to find a way to fight back, until he grabs the plant and breaks the vase on the man’s head, knocking him down.
Hot fuzz actually uses Chekhov’s gun a lot. The movie is full of little details and objects that introduced, reminded to the audience and finally used in a payoff. Let’s see a few examples.
1- The sea mine
Introduction: Angel and Butterman find a potentially dangerous sea mine at the house of an old man in the village. They’re afraid that the bomb might explode, so they run away, but later find out that (apparently) the mine poses no threat.
Reminder: when taking all the guns from the evidence room, Angel is shown carrying out all kinds of weapons and leaving only the sea mine behind
Payoff: The sea mine explodes towards the end of the movie killing the last living member of the NWA and destroying the police station.
2- “What he said”
Introduction: In the movie there’s a running gag that consist of Sergent Fisher, asking Angel what the team should do; Angel replies with a fast, detailed explanation and Fisher concludes saying “what he said”.
Reminder: as this is played as a running gag, this bit of dialogue is repeated multiple times (usually when a murder occurs and the police is on the scene of the crime).
Payoff: in the end, the roles are reversed. Fisher is the one explaining and Angel says the punchline.
3- The old man’s coat
Introduction: during a scene in act 1 Angel explains Butterman that he should always observe his surroundings and suspect everyone who seems out of the ordinary. He points out that an old man passing by is wearing a coat that seems to long for him and says that he might be hiding something under it.
Reminder: the man is seen passing by more than once in the background while the characters are in the center of the town.
Payoff: when Angel finally confronts the NWA, the old man can be seen opening his coat and revealing that he has been hiding a shotgun all this time.
4- Point break / bad boys 2
Introduction: Butterman loves action movies, he mentions multiple times Point break and Bad boys 2 to his stoic and annoyed colleague Angel.
Reminder: in act 2, when Angel and Butterman are starting to get closer, they fall asleep on the couch after watching Point break and while his DVD of Bad Boys 2 is still going.
Payoff: Butterman can’t bring himself to shoot his father while he’s running away, so he unloads his gun in the air replicating the scene from Point break. A few minutes later, when Angel’s old colleagues are flying in from London, the camera spins as they look at the sky parodying a scene from Bad boys 2.
5- The swan
Introduction: in act 1 the police station gets a call from a man who claims that his swan has escaped. Angel and Butterman try to chase the animal but don’t manage to catch it.
Reminder: more than once the swan is shown roaming around the town as other events are taking place.
Payoff: the swan, after being catched by Angel, ends up becoming the ultimate demise for the diabolic police chief. As the man was trying to escape on the police car where the swan was on, gets attacked by the animal and runs into a tree.
Hot fuzz is the perfect example to show how effective it can be to use Chekhov’s gun in a story. The audience leaves the theatre with a sense of closure because there are no more loose ends. Essentially Chekhov’s gun creates a circular pattern that brings the story to an exhaustive conclusion.
Never watched Hot Fuzz? Here’s where you can find it: