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screenplay Chekhov's gun in the modern era

I think most scriptwriters are familiar with the principle of Chekhov's gun. In case some are not, here it is in a nutshell

"Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that suggests that details within a story or play will contribute to the overall narrative. This encourages writers to not make false promises in their narrative by including extemporaneous details that will not ultimately pay off by the last act, chapter, or conclusion."

Over the years, audiences have grown more sophisticated, and while this technique has always been effective, I think it's become far more transparent. Every time I see a close up shot of a screwdriver laying on a counter, I already know that someone is getting stabbed with that screwdriver later in the film. I wonder how writers in the future can learn to riff on the classic technique to remove the predictability that this rule creates.

It seems like a somewhat difficult problem to solve, simply because of the logistics of film, and because there's an excellent reason for the rule in the first place. Still, I can't escape the feeling that the plot is being telegraphed to the audience, now that the average viewer is experienced enough to understand this screenwriting principle.

I've thought of using it for misdirection, a more subtle red herring, but I'm not convinced that it would be effective. Keep showing closeup shots of thee knife holder in the kitchen during a domestic argument, and then have the roof collapse and kill both people? I'm just trying to think through the possibilities, and how writers could start subverting this core principle of screenwriting in a way that would be surprising and entertaining for audiences.
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I think the main way of subverting it would be for misdirection, such as having the object pay off in a different way than that which is most obvious. To use your screwdriver example, it could be used to rescue someone locked in a room (to remove the doorknob or hinges) rather than to kill someone.

A humorous approach could be to show so many such things (a screwdriver, a gun, a sword, a bottle of poison) that it becomes a joke in that the viewer doesn't know which one to expect to be used or if it will be all of them. And if all, then it what order?
 
"Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that suggests that details within a story or play will contribute to the overall narrative. This encourages writers to not make false promises in their narrative by including extemporaneous details that will not ultimately pay off by the last act, chapter, or conclusion."
That's a good explanation of the principle, but no where do you explain why this is called "Chekhov's gun". It might be helpful for people not familiar with the concept.
 
Fair enough,

from screencraft:

--------------------------------

The theory of Chekhov’s Gun originates with 19th-century Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov might not have named the concept after himself, but he did outline the principles of the plot device in several letters to colleagues. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off,” Chekhov wrote.

Chekhov, of course, perfectly used the plot device that now bears his name in his most well-known play, “The Seagull.” The main character carries a gun around at the beginning of the play, and by the end has used that same gun to commit suicide.

Chekhov’s Gun simply refers to any seemingly unimportant element that becomes significant later on in the story.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” Chekhov wrote. “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.”

-----------------------------------

He summed it up pretty well by saying "Don't make promises to the audience that you don't intend to keep"
 
Great who-done-it mystery writers, Christie, Stout, etc., have this kind of thing, misdirection, down pat. How do you hide the killer among the suspects? It might be instructive to diagram out each character and see exactly how, but . . . I don't like this stuff that much.

And I guess it's probably not that hard. We, as a species, seem to be wired in such a way that we are pitifully easy to misdirect.
 
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mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
Great who-done-it mystery writers, Christie, Stout, etc., have this kind of thing, misdirection, down pat. How do you hide the killer among the suspects? It might be instructive to diagram out each character and see exactly how, but . . . I don't like this stuff that much.

And I guess it's probably not that hard. We, as a species, seem to be wired in such a way that we are pitifully easy to misdirect.
I actually changed the killer's identity in one of my screenplays, after spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to hide the character who I intended the killer to be :)
Once I gave in to that idea, the screenplay worked a hell of a lot better - but it took me a LONG time to come to that conclusion.

Wait. What were we talking about?
 
Lol. It sounds like fun--nobody done it, everybody done it, his twin brother done it, he done it to himself! :)

I remember a little thing I read in TV guide a long time ago that I got a kick out of. In a TV show it's always the guest star who done it, because that's usually the best part.
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
I remember a little thing I read in TV guide a long time ago that I got a kick out of. In a TV show it's always the guest star who done it, because that's usually the best part.

I've come to that conclusion on my own lol - if youre watching SVU and there is a big guest star? theyre the bad guy lol.

Also this whole gun thing... extremely obvious to me as a young teenager, and i've ALWAYS hated it. So stupid and predictable.
Driving in the car, they turn on the radio for a quick 6 second chatter and wouldn't you know it?? IT ALWAYS DIRECTLY AFFECTS the character.

NEVER ONCE IN MY DAMN LIFE have I ever had something remotely similar happen to me
 
Aren't you confounding two different notions: that of the script writer and that of set decorator? From the script-writer's point of view - or perhaps more accurately, from the script reader's point of view - there should be no superfluous description in the text, allowing the director and the actors to concentrate on the key elements of their performance. Their work is as much an essential part of any misdirection as the written word, after all.

I would hope that the location scout, the production designer, the set dresser, the lighting crew and the cinematographer, would all be working hard to present us "outsiders looking in" with a richly textured scene where any gun, screwdriver or herring that might later feature in the climax has a (reasonably) logical reason for being there.

There's one exception to this "richly textured" rule that I can think of, though, which might bring Chekhov back into focus: radio drama, where the props usually do need to be introduced in a quite deliberate way, and too much irrelevant "decoration" gets in the way of the story. But discussing that kind of image-free audio is probably close to heretical for a film-makers' forum! :devil:
 

sfoster

Staff Member
Moderator
This idea seems ripe for parody. Have a thing where every scene is packed with superfluous conspicuous guns.
Yes!! and you could do things like casually mention an important character has breast cancer and then forget about it for the rest of the film

 
I've come to that conclusion on my own lol - if youre watching SVU and there is a big guest star? theyre the bad guy lol.

Also this whole gun thing... extremely obvious to me as a young teenager, and i've ALWAYS hated it. So stupid and predictable.
Driving in the car, they turn on the radio for a quick 6 second chatter and wouldn't you know it?? IT ALWAYS DIRECTLY AFFECTS the character.

NEVER ONCE IN MY DAMN LIFE have I ever had something remotely similar happen to me
I don't think I've ever heard a radio broadcast in a movie that didn't follow Chekhov's gun.

Steven King - "A winter storm warning is in effect for the greater Salem area, and travel on roads in and out of town is inadvisable until further notice"

Agatha Christie - "The bridge leading to Holbrook manor is out for repairs until further notice, stay tuned for details"

RL Stine - "Tilbrook Elementary has been closed for the week due to werewolf sightings in the Fisherman's Cave area"

HG Wells - "An alien invasion fleet has been seen in the skies above earth"

ACD (via newspaper, but same thing) - "A huge hound has been spotted frequenting the foggy moors surrounding the Baskerville estate"

Roald Dahl - "One lucky winner will receive a golden ticket to tour Mr. Wonka's Chocolate factory"

Quinten Tarintino - "The two fugitives were last seen at a gas station on route 131, where they killed the clerk and local Sherriff"

Every fugitive plotline (on the tv in the hotel room) - "A statewide manhunt is underway for this man (shows picture of guy that's watching the tv)"
 
Yes!! and you could do things like casually mention an important character has breast cancer and then forget about it for the rest of the film

I feel like Anton Chekhov would be honored to be mentioned in the illustrious company of Tommy Wiseau.
 
I think the main way of subverting it would be for misdirection, such as having the object pay off in a different way than that which is most obvious. To use your screwdriver example, it could be used to rescue someone locked in a room (to remove the doorknob or hinges) rather than to kill someone.

A humorous approach could be to show so many such things (a screwdriver, a gun, a sword, a bottle of poison) that it becomes a joke in that the viewer doesn't know which one to expect to be used or if it will be all of them. And if all, then it what order?
I've seen a few instances where this was done well. Agatha Christie is particularly good at this type of thing.
 
Aren't you confounding two different notions: that of the script writer and that of set decorator? From the script-writer's point of view - or perhaps more accurately, from the script reader's point of view - there should be no superfluous description in the text, allowing the director and the actors to concentrate on the key elements of their performance. Their work is as much an essential part of any misdirection as the written word, after all.

I would hope that the location scout, the production designer, the set dresser, the lighting crew and the cinematographer, would all be working hard to present us "outsiders looking in" with a richly textured scene where any gun, screwdriver or herring that might later feature in the climax has a (reasonably) logical reason for being there.

There's one exception to this "richly textured" rule that I can think of, though, which might bring Chekhov back into focus: radio drama, where the props usually do need to be introduced in a quite deliberate way, and too much irrelevant "decoration" gets in the way of the story. But discussing that kind of image-free audio is probably close to heretical for a film-makers' forum! :devil:
Well, I think it's less about general set dec than it is about items that the camera focuses on specifically. There are tons of background items in scenes of course, but if you see the camera dolly in on a kitchen knife on a counter with shallow DOF, it's probably going to get used later.

Different artforms obviously have to handle things a bit differently. Chekhov was predominately a playwright, so set decorations are typically more limited than in film due to the time constraints of scene changes in front of a live audience.

You can definitely feel his influence to this day. When was the last time you saw a character in a movie get a telemarketing call?

My OP was about the phenomenon that it's getting a lot easier for audiences to put together clues, once you realize that because of this rule, basically everything you see or hear MUST be a clue.
 
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