Utilize Chekhov’s gun to make plot work

You’ve probably read at least one story in which upon reading their climax in which the hero uses some object to help him achieve victory, thought to yourself, “How convenient that it was there!” If the object in question wasn’t mentioned – even in passing so that it did not distract you from the tale – you feel cheated as a reader.

Mentioning early in a story some object – or even a character, prize or challenge – that later helps the main character resolve his central problem is a ploy known as “Chekhov’s gun”. It comes from playwright Anton Chekhov’s advice that if you put a gun on the in Act I, you must use it by Act III. Otherwise, the gun is just a distraction that is out of place.

Of course, if your story is a murder mystery, such distractions are necessary to the plot and enjoyment of the story. Like a labyrinth, a mystery’s plot must contain wrong turns and dead ends for the main character.

But in tales that aren’t murder mysteries or detective stories, forcing the reader to invest time in an object or character that doesn’t offer some plot payoff later in the tale is downright annoying, not to mention poor craftsmanship.

Using Chekhov’s gun also avoids the inconvenient plot problem of a deus ex machine – an improbable contrivance that allows the central problem to be solved.

H.G. Wells uses such a strategy in “The War of the Worlds.” In the novel’s opening lines, he writes:

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.”

Bacteria seen under a microscope aren’t mentioned again in the novel until the story’s climax: As humanity appears doomed to defeat, bacteria infects and kills the Martian invaders, saving us from extinction.