Chekov’s Gun, MacGuffins and other Traps

The ill-fated Vasa, Stockholm

The ill-fated Vasa, Stockholm

Helga’s Post #48 — On our recent trip to Northern Europe and Russia, we visited the beautiful maritime Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990 and is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

The Vasa was built top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, she was allowed to set sail and foundered only a few minutes after she first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze. The impulsive move to set sail was the result of a combination of factors: Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, who was leading the army on the continent on the date of her maiden voyage, was impatient to see her join the Baltic fleet in the Thirty Years’ War; at the same time, the king’s subordinates lacked the political courage to discuss the ship’s structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed. An inquiry was organized by the Swedish privy council to find personal responsibility for the disaster, but in the end no one was punished for the fiasco.

Always on the lookout for connections, I couldn’t help but make the mental leap between the ill-fated Vasa and things that can sink a literary ship, i.e. what aspects will bring disaster to a manuscript in progress. Just as the ship’s design was top-heavy, with insufficient ballast to keep it afloat during the Baltic storms, so too will a manuscript falter if the author is unaware or ignores the story’s structural flaws.

So how does one avoid literary shipwrecks and design a story that is not only weather-proof but is heading for the bestseller list? We’ve all come across these in our writing, even if we didn’t know it consciously. Each serves an important purpose. In the hands of a skilled writer, each has the ability to enhance our stories.

Or not, if we don’t know how to use them correctly. Ignore at your peril.

Let’s start with ‘Motif’: Dictionaries define it as ‘a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., esp. in a literary, artistic, or musical work.’

It’s something symbolic that keeps turning up in order to reinforce the main theme of the work. Usually, this is a physical item, although a motif may show itself in other ways — such as through dialogue.

Sometimes it can be difficult to establish what is a motif, and what isn’t. Their defining characteristics are that they appear more than once and they must be significant in some way. A rose on its own is not a motif. However, if a faded or slashed painting of roses turns up ten minutes later, followed by a wilted rose on a graveside, then that rose probably is a motif – the objects that show up afterwards reinforce the theme of ‘the end of love,’ or ‘Love Betrayed’. So, an object can become a powerful tool in weaving a story, if used properly.

Chekov’s Gun:

That’s a dandy. A great tool if the writer understands it. But it’s easy to ignore, or forget about it. If so, the manuscript will likely head for the garbage bin of eagle-eyed literary agents.  Make sure your Beta readers or critique group are on the lookout. So what is it, then?

It got its name from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, a Russian writer, playwright and physician (1860-1904). He is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history. “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress,” he was quoted. His originality consists in an early use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, later adopted by James Joyce and other modernists, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.  He left writers with a great tool:

“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.” 

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.”

Like Foreshadowing, the object’s importance often goes unnoticed by the reader, 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 (more of that later), 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.

So easy, isn’t it? Yet I can think of more examples than I care to remember, where I had that gun on the wall, or that vial of pills, never to be mentioned again in subsequent chapters. Bad, bad!

Now we come to one of the darlings at writing workshops and conferences. It’s also a favorite topic in how-to books:

The enigmatic MacGuffin:

“In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”  — Alfred Hitchcock  alfred_hitchcock

According to (from which I have borrowed much for this post), MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope Diamond. It makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it. A common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as “Quickly! We must find X before they do!”

The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who actually credited one of his screenwriters, Angus McPhail, with the creation of this concept and the name for it, citing a particular school-boy joke:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Having a MacGuffin is not necessarily bad writing, depending on how it’s handled — concretely defining or giving a central role to the object of a chase can actually detract from a work, if the point is to focus on the characters.

There is one more ‘trope’, courtesy of again. They call it ‘Ass Pull’:

‘That’s the way we do things lad, we’re making shit up as we wish’   – Voltaire

An Ass Pull is a moment when the writers pull something out of thin air in a less-than-graceful narrative development, violating the Law of Conservation of Detail by dropping a  plot-critical detail in the middle, or near the end of their narrative without Foreshadowing or dropping a Chekhov’s Gun earlier on.

In cases where a character suddenly gets a new skill without explanation, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Classroom or Chekhov’s Skill, except the audience never saw the character attending the lecture in question, or any prior examples of him or her using, or even training that skill.

An Ass Pull used to resolve an unwinnable situation for the protagonists is a Deus ex Machina. (“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” – Emma Coats)

An Ass Pull used in the same way for the villains is a Diabolus ex Machina, the  evil counterpart of Deux ex Machina: the introduction of an unexpected new event, character, ability or object designed to ensure that things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists, much better for the villains, or both. An Ass Pull doesn’t necessarily have to resolve or derail a situation, though; many times, an Ass Pull is just used without any greater plot implication. The term is also used to describe something that the characters make up on the spot. AKA: Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.

These are just a few of the hurdles that writers must overcome. I suppose that writers who outline (as opposed to pantsing) are less likely to fall prey to these hazards. But for those who don’t outline, just keeping them on the sidelines in your brain while you’re writing might help to avoid some pitfalls and rejection letters from agents later on.

A final quote on ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief’ to demonstrate that readers are not all bad people. Readers do give authors some slack, some of the time. So not all is lost.

“An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you’re looking at the wires you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.” —Dean Learner


Photo credit: Christopher Jones / Rex Features

6 thoughts on “Chekov’s Gun, MacGuffins and other Traps

  1. A terrific post, Helga! I’ve been hearing all this writers’ jargon – MacGuffins, Motifs, Foreshadowing, Willing Suspension of Disbelief, Deus ex Machina – for years with a less than perfect understanding of their actual meaning.

    But thanks for introducing me to Chekov’s Gun, Classroom and Skill. And I’m especially tickled to add Ass Pull and Pantsing to my writer’s vocabulary, as they have such frequent application to my own first draft.

  2. Chekov’s rifle is such a classic. What’s hard for me to sometimes handle is the “red herring” needed for mysteries. Why? Because so many astute beta readers will latch onto the fact that a certain thread, meant to be one of those misleading herrings, seems to “disappear” from the story. I still struggle with this. When does a red herring become Chekov’s rifle?

    • Thanks, JM. I too have struggled with these terms. The difference, the way I perceive it, is this: Red Herrings are meant to distract your readers and lead them in the wrong direction, diverting attention to the wrong conclusion in a mystery or a crime novel. They are like a magician’s sleight of hand. Chekov’s Gun however, seems unimportant when the reader first comes across it, but later learns that it is a key element to the story. Both of these tools have their usefulness, but both can get the writer in trouble if the reader feels manipulated.

  3. Thank you for yet another basic lesson in fiction writing. I’m glad I don’t owe you tuition for the valuable lesson you’ve imparted to me.
    When Chekov’s gun goes off, does it have to kill anyone? I have a Chekov’s gun that fires at a sub plot that ultimately becomes a red herring, because I want those who put the gun into the story to look misinformed, as seen through the protagonist’s sadder but wiser eyes.

    • Glad to learn I am not the only one with a complex story structure! About Chekov’s gun: all it says is the writer should not include anything that’s not important to the plot. So, if you show the gun, make sure it goes off a few chapters later (regardless if it kills anyone or just clips an ear). Thanks for your comments and best of luck with guns and herrings!

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