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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.
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?
In a short story I wrote called "LENDER OF LAST RESORT" I employed Chekov's Gun using the title of the story itself and a billboard atop a travel agency, as a funny play on words which comes together at the end :) ... Essentially its a comedy about an elderly man who runs a vegetable stand in a Calcutta street market who is robbed while sleeping in his chair. His wife arrives to find all their merchandise stolen along with all the money that was stashed under their empty table. Beyond angry, she curses her irresponsible husband as they will not be able to pay their debts to the farmers the next day. He suggests they try to get some money from the bank. As they drive through the busy roads trying desperately to reach the bank before it closes, they run out of gas just a short walk away from their destination (again, thieves have siphoned their gas). The elderly couple, quite defeated at this point, sit in the car, quite resigned and give up all hope. The old man peers out his window and sees a large billboard above a travel agency. It is of two vacationers enjoying drinks by an ocean resort. The poster reads "Paradise Resort, let your troubles melt away" ... The man begins to daydream and tells his wife "That should be us up there!". His wife looks up and scolds him once more "Have you not done enough dreaming already!" The man finally snaps and says "And why not? we have worked like dogs and for what? A small vacation is not much to ask!" Right at that moment, a policeman comes along and demands they move their jalopy as it is blocking traffic. When they tell the cop somebody stole their gas, he demands they go get some petrol .... They grab something from the back seat and walk away from the stalled car towards the bank....Angry drivers honking at them as they walk away .... they enter a dark alley and remove ski masks and a replica gun inside the plastic bag and they are about to enter the bank...before they do the man notices the same poster in a window beside the bank...the old man nods and grabs the bank door handle as they disappear into the bank :)
As a filmmaker and a fan of films, I don't put too much value on "removing predictability." Sure, it can be fun for a movie to surprise me, but some of my favorite films are extremely predictable. A perfect example of this is the recently released Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021).

Everyone above the age of eight knows that he's gonna...
...get back together with his community...
...in the end. And yet I had tears in my eyes when it actually happened.

I always say that with movies, it's about the journey, not the destination. Spoilers and telegraphed plots don't bother me because I'm in it for the experience of going through a film, not just to learn all the plot points.


IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Same reason you listen to a song again. I mean do you listen to your favorite song and you're like, "okay, I'm good, I know how it ends!" 😂
I think surprise definitely has it's place in film, "Luke, I am your Father", but it's not exactly necessary. I had a conversation last year about a project that tells a branching story about an entire lifespan. He was asking me questions and at one point I explained to him that it only had one ending. He immediately felt like the story had no potential if everything turned out the same anyway. He didn't understand my thinking though. All lives end in death, and it's what happens along the way that matters. Raiders of the lost Ark wasn't a story about an archeologist that died when he got older, it was about an adventure he went on one year. Everything that ever happened had a type of predictable outcome, and it's just a matter of expanding the scale of your perception until that's obvious.

I'll tell you the movie that really surprised me. Sully. Everybody in America had heard the whole story 40 times before the film came out, and yet, the movie was decent, and I didn't know moment to moment what was coming next.

In counterpoint, the many shocking and unexpected events within the plotline of Game of Thrones were a big part of what eventually cemented it's status as one of the great fictions.

Lastly, I think in memory people hyper focus on the story of a film. It may be the most important part, it may be the bones of the entire experience, but there are many layers of entertainment in a good film. Watch a kid watch a Disney film like Frozen. They will watch it a hundred times, because they love to sing along with the songs, or they have a favorite character or visual scene. People have all kinds of reasons to watch movies, and being surprised by the ending is just a small fraction of a diverse pie chart. Ultimately, and regardless of reason, it's how films make us feel that's important, and that's impossible to attribute to just one thing.

Here's a scene where the colorist created one of the most dramatic and poignant scenes in one of the greatest films of all time, simply drawing attention to a character, with not a single word necessary to convey the tragic nature of the reality, and contrast innocence with brutality.

I'll tag on "The Offer" as another great example of a story where I already knew the ending, but was somehow kept in suspense about what would happen next for 10 hours. A great watch if you haven't seen it.
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One sign of a well-made movie, at least for me, is that when re-watching it, you see things that you didn't see the first (second, or third) time. Perhaps a "throwaway phrase" that wasn't so throwaway after all, perhaps a camera angle or lighting choice that suddenly makes more sense, perhaps a subtle reference that you just didn't get because you hadn't seen some other movie/TV show/historical account until now, or perhaps nothing more than recognising a location because you've been to visit it since you last watched the movie.

On the other hand, I do not enjoy having my first viewing of any movie spoilt by a 2-minute trailer that gives away all the principal plot points. :angry: