How Chekhov’s Gun Can Help You With Description

How Chekhov’s Gun Can Help You With Description


In this post, we discuss what Chekhov’s Gun is and how Chekhov’s Gun can help you with description.

Anton Chekhov was born 29 January 1860, and died 15 July 1904. He defined one of the most enduring and popular literary devices, Chekhov’s Gun.

What Is Chekhov’s Gun?

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. 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.” ~Anton Chekhov (Note: There are many variations of this quote. This one is from Wikipedia.)

How Chekhov’s Gun Can Help You With Description

Now this is a hard-core rule and it is mostly applied to objects in a book. For the purpose of this post, I have adapted the technique for descriptions in scenes. What you exclude from a scene is almost as important as what you leave in it.

When I teach scene, I always recommend writers establish a scene goal and then move on to the senses. When we’ve established why your character has to walk into a room, we want to know what she sees, tastessmellshears, and touches.

Chekhov’s Gun is a great foreshadowing tool and I want you to use the principle to ‘kill your darlings’ in a scene by removing sensory details that do not have anything to do with the scene goal. Because we have five senses, we often end up with an information dump. We can avoid this by using the Chekhov’s Gun principle.

Consider this:

Cornelia was dismayed as the first fat drops of rain fell on her hair. She shivered as the cold drops hit her exposed shoulders and ran down her back. She was soaked in seconds. Her dress clung to every curve of her body and made a sucking sound as she pulled it away.

The unexpected summer shower was really inconvenient as she wanted to look especially good tonight. She flipped a wet strand out of her face leaving her cheek sticky from the dissolving hairspray. She could even taste the bitterness from when it was stuck on her lip. Typical, just after she paid a fortune for her hair.

Her heels wobbled on the uneven pavement as she tried to walk faster. She limped as a small stone got stuck in her shoe and stabbed her big toe. She ducked into a doorway, holding onto the rough bricks of the old building as she bent down to take off her shoe.

The humid stench of city steam wafted up from the hot pavement and threatened to overwhelm her. She should have eaten. The lingering green tea taste increased her nausea. She needed to get off the street. The taxis hummed past, flashing their occupied signs. Hooting at each other and their prospective clients.

Her oversized wristwatch caught her eye. She was late. He wouldn’t wait for her. Punctuality was listed as ‘high importance’ on his profile. She couldn’t screw this up. She needed a boyfriend and fast. She was three weeks late already.  She left the sanctuary of the dry doorway and hailed a taxi.

As you can see I have placed a lot of emphasis on the sensory details. You probably noticed it was raining and that her hair and clothing was wet? Notice how it’s total overkill. How do I decide what to remove? Let’s follow Chekhov’s advice. Which sensory descriptions help to cement the goal?

The scene goal is: Get to a date with a punctual potential boyfriend.
Conflict: It’s raining and she is already running late.
Disaster: She is late and we learn she is pregnant.

Now consider this:

Cornelia cringed as the first fat drops of rain fell. Within seconds her dress clung to every curve of her body and made a sucking sound as she pulled it away.

She flipped a wet strand of hair away from her mouth, leaving her cheek sticky from the dissolving hairspray. Typical, just after she paid a fortune for her hair. Bloody summer showers!

Her heels wobbled on the uneven pavement as she tried to walk faster. The humid stench of city steam wafted up from the hot street and threatened to overwhelm her.

She should have eaten. The lingering green tea taste increased her nausea. The taxis hummed past, flashing their occupied signs. The second-hand on her watch marched forward.

He wouldn’t wait for her. Punctuality was listed as ‘high importance’ on his profile. She couldn’t screw this up. She needed a boyfriend and fast. She was three weeks late already. She dashed to the curb and hailed a taxi.

See what I did there?  

Now, let me tell you why. I need you to know it’s raining, but we don’t need three or four descriptions about the rain. The reader gets it.

We’ve all walked in the rain before. We know you get wet. A pebble in her shoe can cause a delay or conflict, but only if I use it again or if she meets a guy who helps her and she ensnares him. I removed this, because it didn’t help me with this scene. I did the same with the dry doorway. I want her wet, uncomfortable, and desperate.

Apply this principle to your latest scene and see if it works for you. Remember to question every description. Make your sentences work hard. Does it add something new? Is it radiating or illuminating or is it just adding to your word count?