The Gun on the Mantelpiece

Or Table, as the case may be.

These days the most common usages of the rule of Chekhov’s Gun can be seen in television and movies where the time constraints of the medium prevent extraneous details, and since most people believe the origin of the famous quote comes from Hitchcock and not Chekhov, it is often assumed to be directly relevant to movies. People forget, or do not realize, that the origin of the rule was literary rather than cinematic.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Chekhov’s Gun is the name of the rule described in his famous quote which I paraphrase: “If you show a gun on the mantelpiece in the first chapter, you’d bloody well better have someone fire it before the epilogue.” As I said, I’m paraphrasing, but the bit about the mantelpiece is more or less correct, causing this rule of writing to sometimes also be known as the ‘gun on the mantelpiece’ rule. In a nutshell, the rule says that if you introduce an element into your story in some way, it should be used. Obviously things like background decoration in a description of a room do not apply (imagine if Tolkien tried to find a use for every single thing he described in Bilbo’s house in the Hobbit), but things that will SEEM relevant to the reader (such as, say, a gun) should end up being used.

In TV and movies, this axiom has, as I have implied above, very nearly reached the status of Natural Law. A TV show or movie only has so much time to tell the story, and thus irrelevant elements are not included. This has lead to a generation or two of people who can usually fairly easily predict plots of shows or movies because we instinctively know that the director wouldn’t focus on something unless it was important in some way. This is especially true of characters, but it tends to apply to anything the camera lingers on for more than a frame or two. Product Placement aside, of course.

Because of this usually unspoken but tacitly understood rule, instances where it is violated tend to stand out somewhat. Take, for example, the new Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides that opened this weekend. Without giving away spoilers, there is a scene where Captain Jack is hiding behind a table eluding some guard types. One of the guards runs past, then stops and for no readily apparent reason, removes his weapon belt and lays it on the table. Once the guard runs off, Jack stands up, picks up the sword and pistol, and scampers off.

Now, this scene is odd in two ways, both of them tied to the Chekhov’s Gun rule. The first flaw in this scene is from the meta- standpoint: Why did the director include it? You might be tempted to say ‘to explain why Jack suddenly has weapons,’ and I would agree with you except for one thing: Jack never uses them. Or at least, he doesn’t use them during the rest of his escape scene. After this, there is a cut to another scene later, but enough time passes that it is not unreasonable to assume that Jack picked up weapons ‘off screen.’ It would have been transparent to the audience, no one would have cried foul if Jack showed up with weapons later after a cut away. So the fact that the camera focused on the weapons the guard left behind seems to imply that THOSE particular weapons have some relevance to the rest of the story, but they do not. The Gun is shown on the Mantelpiece, but it holds no special relevance to the story. It didn’t need to be THAT gun and THAT sword for the story to move on.

The second one is the writer’s fault, and it lies  in the fiction of the world itself: why did a guard, who is currently responding to an alarm, remove his weapons and set them down on the table and then run off without them? There is a logic flaw you can drive a truck through right there. It makes no sense, in the context of the character of the guard. While the first one was the director’s fault, the second one was clearly the fault of the writers for ever having included that bit in the script in the first place.

Ok, I don’t know that for certain. Maybe it was ALL the director’s fault. Maybe he included that bit, and it was never in the script. I have no idea, I haven’t read the script. But you get my point: it was a in-world logic flaw that one would hope writers would be savvy enough to avoid. I sure hope I manage to avoid that kind of mistake. Characters performing actions that are nonsensical -FOR THAT CHARACTER- drive me up a wall. This is not to say that characters behaving oddly is a problem, as long as it is in the character’s personality TO behave oddly. Fizban wouldn’t be who he was if he didn’t do wacky wizardly hijinx now and again, but that was perfectly in keeping with his character. If Jason Bourne suddenly started doing slapstick and fart jokes, we would all find it incredibly jarring.

This is probably why they didn’t cast Jim Carrey in that role.

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1 Comment

Filed under Moving Pictures - Movies and TV, Words words words - Writing and books

One response to “The Gun on the Mantelpiece

  1. Pingback: Chekov’s gun « bardicblogger

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