Chekhov's gun is a metaphor for a dramatic principle concerning simplicity and foreshadowing. It suggests that if one shows a loaded gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be fired in a later act; otherwise, the gun should not be shown in the first place. The principle was articulated by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and reported in various forms.
"Chekhov's gun" is often used as an example of foreshadowing, with the sight of the gun preparing the audience for its eventual use. But the primary point of Chekhov's advice was to caution against including unnecessary elements in a story or its staging. Failure to observe the rule of "Chekhov's gun" may be cited by critics when discussing plot holes. The deliberate defiance of this principle may take the form of a red herring: something which the audience is meant to assume will be important to the plot's outcome, but ultimately is not.
Chekhov's statements of this principle
- "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
- "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." From Gurlyand's Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521.
- "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." From S. Shchukin, Memoirs (1911)
- In 1889, 24-year-old Ilia Gurliand noted these words down from Chekhov's conversation: "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act". Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, ISBN 0-8050-5747-1, 203. Ernest. J. Simmons says that Chekhov repeated the point later (which may account for the variations). Ernest J. Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962, ISBN 0-226-75805-2, 190.