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Chekhov's Gun is a literary technique whereby an unimportant element introduced early in the story becomes significant later on. For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to the Doomsday Device, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important.
Many people consider the phrase "Chekhov's gun" synonymous with Foreshadowing (and they are related), but statements the author made about the Gun can be more properly interpreted as "do not include any unnecessary elements in a story." (Indeed, Chekhov himself first described the concept in reference to live theater productions, where placing a loaded gun on the set would be a clear safety hazard.) Like Foreshadowing, the object's importance often goes unnoticed by the audience, and becomes clear only in retrospect, or during a second viewing.
Used properly, this rule gives the item in question some degree of presence before being used, enough to prevent a potential Ass Pull that might jar and grate on the viewer's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It can, however, turn out to be a Red Herring later on.
As a result of the success of franchises like Lost or Harry Potter, viewers and fans of Myth Arc-laden and/or carefully written shows and books have become accustomed to obsessing over minuscule details and looking out for Chekhov's Guns everywhere and anywhere... whether they actually exist or not. We call these Epileptic Trees and Wild Mass Guessing.
Those hearing this term for the first time should note that a Chekhov's Gun is not necessarily a literal gun -- but is a metaphor for pretty much anything.
Chekhov's Gun Depot also stocks:
- Chekhov's Armoury: A whole stash of Chekhov's Guns.
- Chekhov's Boomerang: Chekhov's Gun has already been used once, then unexpectedly turns up again.
- Chekhov's Classroom: Remember what you heard, when you weren't even listening?
- Chekhov's Exhibit: Chekhov's Gun will be put on display for the general public to gawk at. Before it's stolen, of course.
- Chekhov's Gag: The return of a forgotten joke.
- Chekhov's Gift: Happy birthday! Here, have a Chekhov's Gun.
- Chekhov's Gunman: When a character seems to be there for no reason, they must be important. In other words, the Chekhov's Gun is a character rather than an object.
- Chekhov's Army: A whole stash of Chekhov's Gunmen.
- Chekhov's Hobby: When hobbies turn out to be helpful.
- Chekhov MIA: Remember that missing character? It's actually a Chekhov's Gun.
- Chekhov's News: When a news report mentions something that will be important later.
- Chekhov's Skill: What you learn along the way can be a Chekhov's Gun.
- Chekhov's Volcano: If the story is set in or near a volcano, it'll explode in the climax. The Chekhov's Gun is a place rather than an object.
- Conspicuous CG: The analogue for CGI, newer cartoons, and more video games.
- Conspicuously Light Patch: The Chekhov's Gun of old, traditional Western Animation, where anything obviously not part of the static (and often painted) background layer will be put to use by a character.
- Empty Room Psych: In a video game, all places must have a purpose.
- Forbidden Chekhov's Gun: Never do this. Ever. (Unless you've crossed the Godzilla Threshold...)
- Incurable Cough of Death: The medical Chekhov's Gun. If you coughed in the first act, you can bet that you'll be dead by third.
- Infallible Babble: If prophecies are always right, then nonsense and hearsay is even moreso.
- It May Help You on Your Quest: Take this seemingly-useless item. Go on, take it! You may need it.
- The Legend of Chekhov: If someone tells a fairy tale or legend, it'll turn out to be true.
- Meaningful Echo: A line of idle dialogue is later repeated in a context that gives it additional significance.
- Not-So-Small Role: Character #23 is played by who? They'd never have signed on for so small a role!
- Notice This: It must be important to the plot—look where it's positioned and lighted.
- Rule of Pool: You know what will invariably happen when you see any of these in a scene....
- Someday This Will Come in Handy: Useless knowledge is always important. Compare Lecture, Skill.
- You Will Know What to Do: You are told it will be important, but you aren't told when, how, or why.
Compare Schrödinger's Gun for a competing dramatic weapons dealer. Contrast to a Red Herring, where something shown early appears to be significant but was planted there just to throw you off. If there are a whole bunch of Red Herrings you might be looking at The Walrus Was Paul, where a writer wants to mock fans of Chekhov's Guns by repeatedly messing with them. If there is a very long delay between the introduction of the element and its use in the story, to the point where most of the audience has long forgotten about it, you're looking at a Brick Joke. The MacGuffin is significant for some (possibly even plot-relevant) reason, but we never find out just what it is. If the Chekhov's Gun was hiding on the other side of the Fourth Wall, you have a Ninja Prop. If a Chekhov's gun is set up but dropped (but was neither intended to distract as a Red Herring nor to be brought up later, as a Brick Joke), you have either an Aborted Arc or What Happened to the Mouse?, depending on the importance of the gun to the overall plot.
The Magnetic Plot Device can be a standing Chekhov's Gun to blame the plot on. The Impossible Task may require one. Also see Ass Pull, which is what the viewer can sometimes confuse this with if they miss the gun the first time (or if the gun was edited out in the TV version).
A reverse Chekhov's Gun is also common. Explicitly showing a normally armed character forgetting his gun when leaving the house for example. The experienced troper knows that this will become the day he needs it the most.
WARNING! There are unmarked Spoilers ahead. Beware.
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