Movies are filled with tropes, those sometimes overused plot devices that we can see from a mile away. Sometimes it looks lazy, other times we are misdirected in ways that we might not expect. Even when we see the trope appear, many moviegoers don’t seem to mind. We’ve seen so many movies where a cool hero does his cool quiet walk and something explodes behind him, but we love it because it looks cool. There is also the image of a tough lone wolf in action movies. The horror genre is full of tropes, from the last girl to the killer who never dies at the end. We can predict every action, but horror fans often love the comfort of the known.



Another trope is called “Chekhov’s gun”. Chances are you’ve heard of it, even if you don’t know what it is. It takes its name from the late 19th century Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. Although the definition of the trope is not given in the title, once it is explained it is very easy to understand. There are probably thousands of examples of Chekhov’s Gun that have been used throughout the history of cinema, some of which you may not have even noticed when you watched them play out.

What is a Chekhov gun?

Image via Universal Pictures

Anton Chekhov has long been considered one of our literary greats. Despite the fact that he passed away 119 years ago, his legacy still lives on. Some of this was from his work adapted into films such as Gulldirector Sidney LumetAnd Laurence OlivierX Three sisters. Much of what Chekhov is remembered for is his style, which is still studied by writers and actors.

The most enduring part of Chekhov’s style is the one you may not even be aware of. It’s not overly complicated like some of his work. In fact, you can find Chekov’s style in everything from horror movies to Marvel movies. Heck, you can even see this in professional wrestling. This style includes the image of “Chekhov’s gun”. The trope proceeds from the following rule of Chekhov’s writing: “If in the first act you hung a pistol on the wall, then in the next act you must shoot it. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”

The meaning of the Chekhov pistol is quite simple. If you are hinting at something, show something important in your letter or in the movie, you must do something with the hint. You can’t show a weapon, only to have it disappear and never be seen again, otherwise what’s the point of showing it at all? If you see a gun in a movie, you know that at some point, usually in the second act, as a move that forces the plot, or at the end, when it’s most needed, it will be used. Failure to comply with this requirement is a huge disappointment that only confuses moviegoers.

Examples of Chekhov’s gun trope in films

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future 3
Image via Universal Pictures

Watch any of your favorite movies and chances are you’ll find a scene from Chekhov’s Gun in many of them. Let’s Steven SpielbergX Jaws For example. At the climax of the film (not in the first act, usually a bit moving) Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), fifth (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) are located on Orca, seeking to kill the bloodthirsty great white shark. Oxygen bottles are ringing on board. Hopper takes one to dive underwater. Spielberg shows us the tanks many times, not dwelling on them long enough for it to be obvious, but reminding us again and again that they are there. What’s more, Brody later throws one of the balloons into the shark’s mouth. The tank stays there, is not eaten or spit out. Not only have we been shown Chekhov’s Gun, but Spielberg is now waving it at the camera. This tank isn’t just here because the writer got bored and needed to fill out the page. There is a reason for this. Everything that is written in the film must have a reason to be included. Now we know how the shark will die. It’s not the biggest surprise when a few minutes later Brody shoots the tank and the shark explodes.

Another example can be found in Joe DanteX gremlins. At the beginning of the movie, when we are shown the inside of the Peltzer house, the family that adopted the Mogwai contraption, we see the swords displayed on the wall as decoration next to the living room door. Whenever someone closes the door, swords rattle and fall to the floor. It’s not overdone by treating the audience like they’re idiots who won’t be able to figure it out. Instead, it only happens a few times, just enough to make us aware of their existence. Consciously or unconsciously, we know that these swords will be used. There comes a triumphant moment when Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) later comes home and finds his mother Lynn (Francis Lee McCain), is attacked by a gremlin. Billy immediately grabs the sword and decapitates the creature.

The “Chekhov’s Gun” trail has long been played out in Back to the Future franchise. IN Back to the Future Part 2Marty McFly (English)Michael J. Fox) is in the alternate year 1985 where he sees Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) look Fistful of dollars. This is the famous scene Clint Eastwood shot, only to reveal that he has a steel plate, a sort of bulletproof vest, hidden around his chest. Nothing will come of it here, but Back to the Future Part 3, with Marty in 1885 and calling himself Clint Eastwood, he has a duel with an evil man named Bafford Tannen (also played by Wilson). Tannen kills Marty with a bullet to the body, but we know better. It’s not a shock when Marty stands up and shows the steel plate that protects him.

Examples of the trail “Chekhov’s gun” can go on and on. There is an obsession of the Little Green Men with a machine with claws in Toy Story 3, only to save our heroes from certain death with a mechanical claw. The Winchester rifle is mentioned several times in Zombie named Sean, which means it is used later. Eat Leonardo DiCaprioflamethrower in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and knives in Get the knives Also. Marvel uses it in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Paul Bettany). Throughout the movie, no one is able to lift Thor’s hammer. We know someone will do it, so it’s possible that Vision will be able to lift the hammer. A very recent example The Evil Dead Rise. At the very beginning, we are shown a wood splitter standing idle in the garage of an apartment building. It can’t be that someone hasn’t done it. The list goes on and on.

Why does the Chekhov gun trail work?

Why then does such a predictable trope as “Chekhov’s gun” work when it can be so predictable? Don’t the best movies thrive on being original and shocking, giving us something we haven’t seen before? Of course, but no matter what, some parts of the drama must always play out the same way. Showing weapons in a film and deciding not to use them is not shocking, great art, it’s just a lie to the audience. Look at professional wrestling, for example. If you watched it, you saw a hundred times how someone pulls a table or chair out from under the ring. They may not use it right away. Their opponent may be stopping them at the moment, leaving the chair or table just standing there. Minutes may pass, but we know that a table or chair is being used. This happens every time. The fighting crowd would be furious if the weapons were never seen again.

The “Chekhov gun” image works because it means something. We don’t have the weapon shown, only for the character to later use it without any consequences. It matters when this gun is used. When used in Act 2, Chekhov’s Gun can ignite the plot by taking it in a new direction. When used at the end, as many of these examples show, Chekhov’s Gun is the hero who saves the day. It’s part of the main character, part of the happy ending, part of what makes it all work. It’s a cathartic release when the shark dies. Jaws or when Woody and company are rescued in Toy Story 3. Some trails can certainly be excessive and tiring, but not all. We need “Chekhov’s gun”.