Chekhov’s rifle, also known as Chekhov’s gun, is a compositional principle invented by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the great masters of Russian literature. The principle reads:
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
In practice, the idea is that the filmmaker should not focus the reader’s or viewer’s attention on things that have no meaning later on. Suppose we are watching a movie. The first scene shows the main character training at the gym. He is pushing a lot of weight, boxing and running on a treadmill. The scene tells us a lot about the character. He takes care of his physical condition, is very strong and knows how to fight. If we are dealing with action cinema, this scene is significant, as it makes clear about the main character’s skills. But what if we are dealing with a courtroom drama, during which the character does not use physical strength? The scene becomes completely unnecessary. This is what Chekhov’s gun principle is all about. A screenwriter shouldn’t focus on things that aren’t important, but on things that bring something to the work.
We can find examples of Chekhov’s gun in almost every movie. Tradition of the series about the adventures of James Bond is a scene in which the main character receives some gadget, which later helps him get out of trouble. In the movies about the adventures of Harry Potter the wizard, in almost every scene the character learns some spell that will be used in a dramatic moment. Unfortunately, this principle also has a drawback. If used in an unskillful way, it can make the movie predictable. In the film “Prometheus,” when we as the viewer are introduced to the surgical chamber, we can immediately guess that it will be used to remove an alien. Once this happens we do not feel any tension or surprise. For this reason, the filmmakers try to camouflage Chekhov’s gun.
NOTES. Below are spoilers from the TV series Breaking Bad and the movie Jaws
The following scene from the TV series Breaking Bad is an example. In it, a resigned character is playing with a gun. In the background we see a seemingly insignificant plant. However, as it turns out later, it was this plant (Lily of the Valley) that was used by the main character to poison one of the secondary characters, which launched a whole series of tragic events.
Another good example comes from Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws. When the character played by Roy Scheider causes an oxygen cylinder to fall out, he gets a rebuke from his colleague:
“Damn it, Martin! This is compressed air! You screw around with these tanks, and they’re gonna blow up!”
The scene looks natural, and it’s hard for the viewer to guess at this point that the scene with the cylinder was no accident.
Sometimes the rule is broken deliberately. An example is the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the main character is confronted with a well-trained opponent armed with a powerful sword. After the demonstration of the opponent’s skills, the viewer expects a spectacular fight scene. Meanwhile…