If you introduce a cannon into the first chapter, you better have fired the thing by the end of the book.
That principle, known as Chekhov’s Gun, is an element that too many beginning writers either do not know or, worse, do not care about. The concept was named after the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
I want to talk about Chekhov’s Gun, though, rather than the man himself. What does it mean? Why is it important? Is it graven in stone?
First, exactly what is it? To quote the ubiquitous Wikipedia, "Chekhov's gun is a metaphor for a dramatic principle concerning simplicity and foreshadowing." It sets the reader up for some sort of dramatic surprise and causes himer to anticipate it. It also forces the writer to consider if what hesh is introducing is really necessary.
So what? Why does it matter? Quite simply, if you introduce a major plot point into your book but don't use it, you will only leave your reader confused and disappointed, and mark yourself as an amateur.
Think about it. You’re writing a book about, say, the FBI and you talk about this nifty new technology they’re just bringing online, say a transporter beam to move agents here and there almost instantaneously. So many newbie writers will make a grand introduction of its existence…and then hardly ever mention it again, if ever. They’ll just leave us readers hanging.
Makes you wonder what was the point So the Feebs have this marvelous new toy. So what? Do they actually use it? If so, how did it work—or, for that matter, did it work at all? Against whom did they use it and why? What happened next?
See my point? The author titillates us with this technology but then seems to forget about it. And that, in my opinion, is just plain rude and unconcerned about the reader. It’s also the mark of a rookie.
So, if you introduce some big plot element, use it ere reaching “The End.” It’s only the polite thing to do.
With that said, is the principle inviolate or is there some wiggle-room? Well, like most things, of course there are times when violating the rules are not only appropriate but enhance the story even more. It can make a wonderful red herring. Let’s go back to that transporter beam. Our illustrious author may introduce it to send the hapless reader off on a wild goose chase while the real story continues on apace.
The Feebs are investigating the criminal shenanigans of Monster Corporation and are naturally keeping it as hush-hush as they can. Makes sense, right? But the CEO and lawyers of the corporation are canny and quite suspicious, even paranoid, thus placing the investigation (and the investigators) in peril. So, the Feebs make a huge, boasting announcement of this wonderful new transporter beam…but it’s all just a ruse. There is no beam. It’s intended only to throw Monster Corporation off the scent.
We readers, being caught up in the story, are dragged into the ruse, as well. We are looking forward to seeing the thing in action and we forget about the real purpose of the story: the investigation into Monster Corporation. We’re hoodwinked just like the corporate bad-guys.
And we love it. It adds a delicious taste of spice to the story. The author broke the rule, but, in doing so, wrote a story worth the read.
Understand, though, that the writer absolutely must use that cannon in some way by the end of the story, even if just a few words at the end explaining it was all a con. That’s the important part.