*WARNING: Spoilers for Breaking Bad and Ant-Man*
I’ll get right into it. Chekhov’s Gun is an almost universally accepted rule of writing fiction. Coined by playwright Anton Chekhov, it states that “If a gun is placed on a table in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 2”. In other words, don’t put plot threads in your story that don’t have any payoff later. If it doesn’t forward the plot, don’t include it. However, the implementation of Chekhov’s Gun is rarely that simple. There are certain pitfalls to avoid.
Undoubtedly the most effective use of Chekhov’s Gun is in Breaking Bad. No detail is irrelevant in that show, and no shot is wasted. The most straightforward example is in season 3, when two cartel assassins set out to kill Hank. When buying guns, the seller brags to them about his superior ammunition, and how effective it is at blowing through a man’s head. He then gives one of the men a bullet for free. At the end of the episode, as the assassin is about to kill Hank, he accidentally drops that very bullet, which Hank shoves into a gun and fires through the assassin’s head.
This is a masterful use of Chekhov’s Gun also highlights its main issue: Since it is such a universal rule, it makes surprising a viewer difficult. Most people are aware of the principle even if they don’t know it, and come to expect that seemingly erroneous details will have a future impact. Almost anyone would watch the scene where the gun seller hands over the bullet and think “someone’s gonna get killed with that bullet”. But Breaking Bad avoids predictability by keeping vague exactly who it will kill. Will it be Hank? The assassin? Someone else? And how will it happen?
For an example of how not to use Chekhov’s Gun, look at Marvel’s Ant-Man. (For the record, I liked this movie a lot. I’m only criticizing this one scene) When Scott tinkers with his suit, Pym stops him in a panic and tells him something like “Don’t touch the regulator! If you remove that, you’ll shrink forever until you become nothing!” To which every single moviegoer immediately thought “Gee, I WONDER if exactly that will happen later?”
So, in conclusion, Chekhov’s Gun is a near inevitability of storytelling, but if used correctly, it shouldn’t stop a story from appearing unpredictable.