How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot with Chekhov’s Gun

If you’re a writer, then I hardly need to explain Chekhov’s Gun to you. However, I didn’t know about it for a long time, so I can’t just go without explaining it at least briefly for anyone who might be unfamiliar. We all know what they say about assuming, right?

Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device popularized by playwright and short fiction writer Anton Chekhov. The old expression is some variation of “If there’s a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must go off by the third.”

It doesn’t literally have to be a gun, however. It could be as grand as a nuclear warhead or as minor as a speck of dandruff. The point is, once it is introduced, it should play a role in the story by the end. That speck of dandruff could be the final piece of evidence in a murder case.

I stumbled upon this principle by accident before I’d even heard the term. In fact, I started referring to it as the “buried gun” early on. Funny how we all land on guns for these terms. I used this effect as sort of a way to keep myself interested in writing a fantasy story I was working on at one point.

In practice, I would introduce things in the story—a piece of overheard information, an item the main character picked up, etc.—and not explain anything about them at first, because I didn’t know what they were for yet. The idea was to find some way to make it relevant to the story, either in the next chapter or maybe right at the end. It’s sort of the opposite of what a lot of writers do for foreshadowing, where they pepper things in retroactively to set up a big twist. There were no set rules, but it was kind of a challenge or exercise I set for myself. It worked for me.

But since learning of Chekhov’s Gun, I’ve become a more critical reader, sometimes even using my knowledge as a writer to guess what is going to happen later on in the story.

This is my biggest problem with Ready Player One.

Don’t get me wrong, though. RPO is one of my favorite books. And that fact will either help legitimize my point or make you roll your eyes at me. It’s a divisive book to some. And yes, I’m excited for the movie, as I have been for two years since learning Spielberg took interest in directing it.

There are two points in which Ernest Cline mishandles Chekhov’s Gun, in my opinion. However, I can’t talk about one of them because it veers into spoiler territory. Let’s just say that this principle can sometimes result in a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. But I’d even say that part of the story was done in a surprising way that made it enjoyable overall.

What I’m going to talk about here, instead, is the literal gun in the story.

The main character of Ready Player One, Wade Watts, gets himself wrapped up in what is at first a pretty innocent contest, but later turns out to have deadly effects. To protect himself from possible pursuers, he buys a gun.

In the context of the story, this is a sound idea. The people he’s up against have tried to kill him before, and have killed others. The problem is that the gun is never actually used. And I don’t simply mean it’s never fired—that would still be fine—but it’s never used even to be taken from him, which would have created a scene in which Wade is made even more vulnerable than he already is. I think it’s hardly ever even mentioned again.

In a forum post for the movie, I’ve seen this scene referred to as “liberal porn.” That’s a pretty harsh indictment, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the poster didn’t actually read the book, but I can’t say the guy doesn’t have a point, no matter which side of the aisle you sit on. However, I think it’s simply because of the nature of the gun.

The passage in the book isn’t very long, to be fair. It lasts about two paragraphs and these are the facts we get: It comes from a vending machine which scans his fingerprints to automatically check his criminal record, the gun is keyed only to his handprint, and it can’t be used within twelve hours of being purchased.

It stands out as a vision of Cline’s future, especially with the amount of detail in just those two paragraphs, and possibly even speaks to his own political beliefs on the second amendment. But it also stands out because now the main character has a gun.

My reaction upon reading this scene the first time was, “Oh, boy, I wonder how this is going to be used. I bet it’ll be something really creative!” But that was the end of it. Nothing happened with it, which was a bit of a let-down, even as minor as it is in the grand scheme of the story.

Then again, maybe Cline included this scene to subvert the expectations of people like me. However, I think it would have been more subversive if he’d shot someone, as disappointing and out-of-character as that would have been.

This is something I hope is fixed in the movie in some way, either by doing away with the gun entirely or maybe by having the character lose it, or throw it away, or even just use it as a paperweight.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

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