If you mention something in your story, make it intentional
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said:
“If a gun is introduced in the first act of a play, it should be fired by the third.”
Chekhov's Gun in action:
Bilbo's ring in The Hobbit
The Horcruxes in Harry Potter
Walter's Leaves of Grass in Breaking Bad
The ‘gun’ is a seemingly small element from early in the story that comes back to play a major role. It’s also the subject of today’s newsletter.
Hope you enjoy — Nathan.
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Now to today’s piece 🌎
The 8th season of Game of Thrones turned into one of the biggest disappointments in TV history. Take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores of the final four seasons (100% is perfect):
Season 5: 93%
Season 6: 94%
Season 7: 94%
Season 8: 55%
Yikes. So why the huge dropoff?
Many things. But one of the biggest misses — the writers failed to honor Chekhov’s Gun.
To put it simply, Chekhov’s Gun says two things:
Irrelevant elements should be removed from your story
Elements shouldn’t make “false promises” by never coming into play or by being less important than originally believed
I look at anything brought into stories as a “promise.” If you mention something, your audience expects it to matter. If it doesn't (or if it matters less than your audience expects), you've made a “false promise.”
False promises break trust. As a storyteller, trust is one of your biggest assets.
Two examples — one bad, one good
Let’s start with the bad:
“Winter Is Coming.” One of the most bad*ss phrases I can remember. It gives you the chills; it makes you feel cold. And it’s tied to Game of Thrones’ Night King and his white walkers. (*Spoilers ahead*)
Then, not even in the show’s final episode, The Night King gets offed in a fight that lasts less time than it took for you to read this sentence.
Talk about disappointing. And an example of the audience’s expectations being set way too high, a violation of Chekhov’s Gun.
Time for the good example. Let’s look at Breaking Bad (*Spoilers*):
Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, uses the alias "Heisenberg" to keep his criminal activities separate from his personal life.
Walter's copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass initially looks like a clever way to connect the fictional character and the legendary poet whose name inspired him.
But later in the show, Walter's brother-in-law finds the book in Walter's bathroom. Through it, Hank connects the dots between Walter and the elusive Heisenberg.
Only a minor prop in the beginning, the book ends up shifting the entire series’ narrative.
The best use of Chekhov’s Gun is subtly introducing an element near the beginning of your story that becomes massively important down the line.
While you aim to surprise your readers with unexpected plot twists, you also need to satisfy their anticipation by ensuring that the 'guns' you've placed in your story do eventually 'fire'.
Cheers. Talk next week.
⚒️ I keep playing around with AI to check on its storytelling abilities. So far, great for outlines and brainstorming, but terrible for the actual writing part. Except… Claude+ from AnthroscopicAI. It’s far better than the current version of ChatGPT.
⚒️ Other than Grammarly, Hemingway is the one writing tool I use every week.
Plop your writing into the tool and it tells you what grade level it’s at, what sentences are a little long, where unnecessary adverbs are, and even where you used passive instead of active voice.
☁️ From the legend Ray Bradbury: “If you can’t read and write, you can’t think. Your thoughts are dispersed if you don’t know how to read and write. You’ve got to be able to look at your thoughts on paper and discover what a fool you were.”
Found in Tim Ferriss’ 5-Bullet Friday
📹 Apple’s 1984 commercial which aired at the Super Bowl is a great example of Chekhov’s Gun in marketing. Can you spot it?
When you’re ready to go deeper, here are three ways I can help:
If you want a practical way to improve your writing and storytelling in less than 25 minutes a day, check out StoryWork (200+ students).
Grab time with me for a 1:1 session on newsletters, storytelling, attracting an audience, growing an agency, or whatever your heart desires.
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I've written a few *decent* short stories with AI. Thoughts on coming up with the characters, plot, and setting through polls down here at the bottom?