Chekhov’s Gun, Chandler’s Gun, and Hitchcock’s Bomb

These are three writing devices, expounded by the writers whose names are included in the titles. Chekhov’s Gun is the most famous (sometimes, apparently, called “Chekhov’s Rifle”) and I may have made up the names of the others (that is, they may be more commonly known by other names than the ones I use). They are all based on quotations, sometimes famous, by the authors.

I have been thinking about whether and how these crop up in my current WIP and the effect that the ideas have had on the development of my story ideas. In particular, two characters whose appearance in the first draft required some careful thought about how to handle their roles.

Chekhov’s Gun

Which goes, if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third act. Sometimes people use the term for the inverted, which is to say, if a gun is fired in the third act, you should introduce it in the first act. One of the daftest versions of this that I can think of is in a Tom Clancy novel (I forget which one, and may even be misremembering who wrote it – I read it a long time ago) where he needs something to bang into a submarine at just the wrong moment (for the submariners) in the climax. So in the opening chapter or so of the novel, there’s a convoluted scene explaining why there’s going to be a log floating in the middle of the ocean. The log is a Chekhov’s Gun. My all-time favourite Chekhov’s Gun is, “Stampede, Earl!” in Tremors. A very silly, but very clever, film and a masterpiece of plotting.

In general, it’s about audience expectation. It is more often the case than not that a reader likes to feel that they could have seen it coming, if only they had picked out the right signs. Lots of people love to guess who the murderer is before the detective does his big reveal, or before the mask is pulled away. The point of Chekhov’s Gun, whether in the inversion or the natural, is to satisfy that urge in the reader. If the gun appears out of nowhere, the reader feels cheated: “Hey, no one said there was a gun, no fair!” Equally, the reader (or audience member) sees that gun on the first page and starts coming up with lots of explanations of how it’s going to be involved in the climax. If the gun isn’t used, then the reader wants to know why not, and perhaps wonders why the characters didn’t think of using it.

With my WIP, in the first draft (as I mentioned) two characters appeared who had not been in my plot outline. They each took significant roles in the subsequent development of the storyline and one of them got her own subplot to help move things along. When I went back to my second draft, the question was – “Are these women examples of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’?” I thought about how significant they both were and assumed that they must be. One in particular, it seemed to me, had to be around from much earlier on, even though she doesn’t begin to have an impact until past the halfway mark. The other, KP, I wrote a scene to explain who she was, but now as I approach the scene where she appeared in the first draft, she hasn’t had any other mentions. I realised that she might in fact have been an example of:

Chandler’s Gun

Or the “Guy-with-a-gun move”. Apparently, Raymond Chandler used to say that if his story ever got bogged down, he’d send in some guy with a gun. I recall reading about how Doctor Who serial “The War Games” came to be written, when two stories were cancelled and they needed a mammoth story to replace them for the season finale. I forget who the script editor and his collaborator were on the story, but they told Doctor Who Magazine that every time they got stuck trying to fill the story, they would “have someone enter holding a gun”.

With KP, her appearance came out of feeling it was logical that someone like her would enter the life of my Lead at just that moment. There wasn’t really a feeling of “bogged down”, except that the timescale for the storyline did allow a gap and a sag before the next big emotional spike. KP’s arrival was, in terms of my Lead’s experience, like the kind of shake-up that the “guy-with-a-gun” is supposed to provide to get things moving. At that moment in the story, the Lead is more comfortable and KP’s arrival provides a new emotional tension to propel things into the big crisis that is just around the corner.

After creating KP, with her emotional tension, I felt obliged to give her some kind of release by the end of the novel. This ended up working out well to provide an overlap with the final trauma and resolution for the Lead.

Hitchcock’s Bomb

I don’t know if this has a “proper” title. I base the title I use for the device on an interview with Alfred Hitchcock that I saw on the BBC several years ago. In it, the famous director discussed suspense and said something like, “Here’s suspense. You show a bus with a bomb on it, and a clock ticking down. But when the clock reaches zero, the bomb doesn’t go off. I did it once, but I got it wrong, the bomb blew up.” He went on to explain that the tension, the suspense, lies in the audience understanding that there is still a bomb on the bus, but wanting to know why it didn’t blow up and asking if is going to blow up due to some other trigger, or what the person who planted the bomb will do about it not going off.

In some ways it is like a subversion of Chekhov’s Gun, in that Chekhov would surely say that the bomb has to go off. Hitchcock says that the bomb should not go off. Or rather, says that the audience must not be allowed to know or predict whether the bomb will go off. Alternatively, it is an inversion of the Chandler’s Gun, in that Chandler stirs things up by forcing characters to react to an unexpected event, whereas a Hitchcock’s Bomb is precisely stirring things up by forcing the characters to respond to an expected event not happening.

Like Chekhov’s Gun, however, the questions raised by the bomb should be resolved at the end of the story. If the bomb does go off eventually, we should know why it did (even if it’s just showing a loose wire that a bump in the road causes to make a brief and fatal connection). If the bomb doesn’t go off, then we want to know what stopped it, and what the consequences of it not going off were.

The essential features of a Hitchcock’s Bomb are therefore:

Some significant event (either catastrophic or positive) is set up, and then fails to happen. The manner of its failing is such that the event remains potentially imminent but it is now unpredictable or chaotic. Eventually, either it happens or the threat is averted.

I found it hard to think of examples of a Hitchcock’s Bomb, because it is quite a subtle distinction from Chekhov’s Gun when taken as part of a whole story. It was easier to think of ways of adapting a story to introduce a Hitchcock’s Bomb scene or sequence, than to find cases where it had been done.

For instance, if we take “bomb on a bus” literally, then the movie Speed does not have a Hitchcock’s Bomb: the bomb’s behaviour remains predictable. But what if we add a scene in that movie where the bus drops below 50mph, and yet the bomb doesn’t detonate? Now we have a Hitchcock’s Bomb. How would Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock react? Do they assume the bomb is a dud and try stopping the bus altogether? But what if the speedometer the bomb is using is calibrated slightly differently from the dial in the bus cab, so maybe if they do that the bomb will go off at a slower speed. Could it be to do with the “crappy timepiece” – maybe the bomb is primed, but they have a grace period? If they don’t get back up above 50mph quickly enough, that’s when the bomb detonates. Or maybe the bomber has a remote control switch to disable the bomb as well as to detonate it – maybe he’s toying with them and giving them a second chance. At any moment, he could re-arm the bomb and if they are going to slowly at that point – boom! None of which would need to be spelled out in detail (except that the heroes need to be persuaded not to try stopping the bus). It just takes a few snapshots of the possible explanations, and bingo: added tension. The movie as made has a simple premise: there may be challenges to overcome to keep the bus above 50mph, but you know that’s what they have to do. But imagine the depth and tension if they don’t know that they have to do it. What if, at the backs of their minds, there’s the possibility that the bomb wouldn’t go off, and maybe all of their effort is unnecessary? You can still have the pay-off explosion at the end, which proves that all along they did the right thing.

That’s an example of how a Hitchcock’s Bomb might work. Examples of it being done may depend in part on perception. For example, in “Sherlock”, the ending of “His Last Vow” (last episode of season 3) was, in my mind, a Hitchcock’s Bomb. The final pay-off seemed to me as though it was clearly set up to occur several minutes earlier, but hadn’t happened. When it did come, it was in a different manner but entirely logical from the way the characters were constructed. (Arguably, the truth about Mary Watson’s past is another Hitchcock’s Bomb in that story, although one that doesn’t go off.) It may be that someone else watching the same scene would not see the logical conclusion that I did (which would, perhaps, be a worrying insight into my mental state) and therefore it doesn’t count as a Hitchcock’s Bomb for them.

A variation might be the classic sitcom “will-they-won’t-they” trope. Here, the “Bomb” is a (sexual) relationship between two lead characters. It’s set up early in the series that “logically” the couple “ought” to get together, but somehow neither of them seems to realise it, or some kind of event keeps them apart at the crucial moment. For the next ‘n’ seasons, the imminent potential relationship remains hinted at but left unresolved for as long as the writers can bear to make it last. The audience is supposed to be on tenterhooks (and, obligingly, many of us actually do tune in for that reason) as to whether or not the pair will finally snog/date/fuck each other (depending on target audience and depth of the desired tension). Usually, there’s some eventual shift that happens that allows them to get together, but enough cases exist where the show reaches the end of its run without the Bomb detonating (that is, without the snog/date/fuck event happening), that there is actually reason to wonder.

I don’t feel as though I have been subtle enough to produce a Hitchcock’s Bomb in my own work. If I were to do so, I think that I would build the plot around a premise that started with a Hitchcock’s Bomb, and then spin the story out by letting the characters react and respond. SInce I am not a natural “pantser” (that is, “write by the seat of your pants” approach) it would be quite a departure for me to try that. But it is a concept and a device that resides strongly in my mind and that in other ways informs my writing.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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