What is Chekhov’s Gun?



Welcome to the second lesson in this course about the story of the Bible. In the last lesson, we explored the Pixar story structure and applied it to the Bible. I’m going to continue to refer to that structure, and in this lesson we’re really going to focus on the “Until Finally” section.

I also want to introduce another principle of good storytelling, and it is called Chekov’s gun.

Anton Chekov was a Russian playwright in the 1800s. He identified a principle in storytelling that has been around for ages and is still important in movies and television and novels today.

The principle is this: “‘If in Act I you have a gun hanging on the wall, then it must fire by the last act’.

In other words, if you set something up in a story, there needs to be a payoff. So if a character notices a gun on the wall early in the story, what do you expect to happen before the story ends? For better or for worse, someone will use that gun.

If you’ve ever seen a James Bond movie, then you will recognize this example:

Before going on a mission, 007 would visit a guy named Q. James would always ask for a car or some piece of technology he needed to complete his mission, and Q was always developing some funky new gadget.

He would give Bond a Rolex watch that could spin and turn into a miniature saw, or something right? And James would take it and look at Q with a raised eyebrow, like “are you serious – why would I need this.” But you knew, somehow that watch was going to matter later in the movie. And sure enough, during the climax of the movie, James would get his hands tied and use that miniature saw blade on his watch to escape.

So the watch with the saw is the set-up, and cutting the rope is the payoff.

This is probably the first time you’ve heard anyone use the words “Chekov’s gun” to describe a literary device in the Bible, and it might be the last, but this device gets frequently used in the Old Testament.

The Bible is filled with hundreds of set-ups, and Jesus pays them all off. You might be more familiar with the term foreshadowing, and that’s also a good term for what’s going on here.

Whatever you call it, there are so many examples that we cannot come close to looking at every example today, but I do want to look at one particular thread.

So before we do that in the next video, I’d ask that you take some time to read Genesis 22:1-19. As you do that, see if you can see any examples of Chekov’s gun that are specific to that particular story, but also to the larger narrative of the entire Bible.