A well-written story, whatever the form, is always armed with a battalion of guns – Chekov’s guns, that is. The rule of “Chekov’s gun” says that if you’re going to fire a gun in a scene, you need to show it hanging on the wall or laying on the table a few scenes earlier. In other words, set-up your pay-off.
Set-up is the flesh of a fulfilling story. Set-up gives purpose to your plot twists and keeps your pay-offs from being contrived deus ex machinas. If your clumsy janitor has the keys to unlock the generator and keep the building from exploding, your climatic ending will be far more fulfilling if the audience learned earlier in the story that the janitor had a key ring. As opposed to having the janitor suddenly burst out, “Oh, I forgot, I’ve got this key I’ve been carrying around in my pocket – let’s try it and see if it works!”
While putting your gun on the table a few scenes beforehand will do worlds for making your story sound, I’d like to suggest that sometimes putting the gun on the table isn’t enough. You need to clean it, have someone’s mother complain that it’s not in the cabinet where it should be, or carry it to another room. Maybe it gets used to shoot a squirrel off the bird feeder. In any case, don’t just drop it on the table – work it into the story.
Some elements can be set-up and left to explode like a bomb without any further involvement. But many elements could stand to be cleaned, exercised, and used – to be ground into the story. Many a poorly-written movie will toss out a bit of information early on in the story (usually in the form of contrived dialog) so that they can pull on it later in the film. In the 2009 Astro Boy, we learn during a revealing conversation that Cora has parents in Metro City. This dramatic tidbit is not mentioned again until her parents waltz onto the scene at the end. The information doesn’t even appear to have a significant effect on Cora’s character or motivation.
Scenarios like these do set their gun on the table before they fire it, but the element is so drastically underdeveloped that the entire sequence feels contrived and lacks impact. The pathetic set-up is tacked on and then completely forgotten until the information suddenly becomes important in a pay-off that is only a heartbeat away from deus ex machina.
How much more fulfilling would it be if our gun played a roll in the story that was more significant than wall décor? Using the example of our clumsy janitor again, instead of just giving him a key ring to carry around, let him use the keys once or twice for other purposes. Maybe they even get him in trouble because he accidentally locks someone in their office. Develop the janitor’s asset so that when he saves the day by unlocking the generator, it’s fulfilling, not convenient.
Of course, you can take it too far. The audience is intelligent. They don’t need a character to explain “This is a gun”; they also don’t need to be beaten over the head with the object. The audience will remember what you set-up – but they’ll enjoy it a lot more if it’s creatively woven into the story rather than tacked on to soften a deus ex machina.
After all, a good rifleman keeps his weapons in good condition so they don’t malfunction or misfire.
Keep your gun clean!