Television shows have come a long way since the late-1940s. Sitcoms and serials didn’t necessarily have the amount of world-building that we see today. Each week, the audience would get a single story that would resolve itself by the end of the episode. On rare occasions, there would be a two-part episode covering a larger plot, but it would always return to the status quo. In the early-2000s, TV shows started to become more movie-like. Shows like Alias and LOST would use the full run-time of each episode to advance the larger narrative of the story while also exploring smaller arcs to develop the characters.
The trick with viewing a show released an episode at a time over a couple of months is that much of the details had to be memorized so the thread connecting them together would be understandable. This is why you’d usually see a “previously on [BLANK]” section at the start of these episodes to remind you of the salient elements that would be covered in the following episode.
Streaming has changed the television landscape.
Fast forward a good decade later, and streaming has changed the television landscape. Now audiences can take in as much of the plot as they want in a single sitting. They don’t have to wait for next week’s episode to learn what happens next. If anything, the only barrier to the audience continuing the plot of the story is the end of the season. Consequently, TV shows have had to adapt into something akin to chapters in a book (even if authors like Charles Dickens used to release their stories a chapter at a time via magazines and other periodicals).
With television now looking more like a long movie with several intermissions every 30 or 60 minutes, there are key elements of story structure that have become critical to engaging the audience. Sure, there’s more time to explore a story in a TV show versus the limited time movies usually have. However, it’s still important to recognize that each element of a TV show shouldn’t go to waste. If a trunk full of weapons and random garage equipment is shown in episode 1, it should come into play by (at least) the last episode. The final season Breaking Bad did this to great effect, and now I’ve seen similar excellence in season 3 of Stranger Things.
What is Chekhov’s Gun?
One of the elements of excellent story structure that I saw in Stranger Things 3 was that of foreshadowing and “Chekhov’s Gun.” Basically, Anton Chekov’s writing advice says, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Therefore, if something is shown or mentioned at any point during the season, it should come into play to advance the plot before the end of it. Sure, some of these things can carry over into other seasons, but to give a single season the right amount of “oomph,” it needs to stay within the bookends of the first and last episodes for that season.
The beauty of Chekhov’s Gun is the “Aha” moment it provides the audience. Those who were paying attention are likely to gain the most enjoyment as they see little details become essential plot points. Sometimes, this can backfire and make the plot somewhat too predictable, though. There is a fine line between subtle foreshadowing and straight-up “spoiler alerts.” Speaking of which, there will be spoilers for Stranger Things 3 below this point, so skip ahead if you don’t want to learn what happens.
STRANGER THINGS SPOILERS BEGIN
In season 3 of Stranger Things, we see the kids enjoying their summer. From attending summer camp (and gaining a girlfriend in the process) to obtaining summer jobs at the local mall, the gang takes a breather from all the supernatural events that have happened in Hawkins. The first Chekhov Gun we see in this season is that of Dustin’s girlfriend, Suzie. He just happened to meet her at summer camp, but she also lives halfway across the country in Utah. From this first episode, the radio tower that comes into play later on is set up, but Suzie is strangely absent (making the audience wonder if she’s even real). However, in a clutch situation in the last episode, Suzie comes online and saves the day with a critical piece of information the team needs to stop the destruction of Hawkins.
Similarly, knowledge of the previous season of Stranger Things helped to shape how the final battle would play out. While the audience initially learned that the Mind Flayer doesn’t like the heat in season 2, this point was reiterated throughout season 3. Since Independence Day plays a part in the timeframe of season 3, it was inevitable that the inclusion of fireworks would become a part of the plot. As Lucas goes into great detail about the destructive force of the fireworks they stole from a local store, it soon becomes evident that the heat and damage these fireworks can produce will come into play to defeat the Mind Flayer. Sure enough, that’s how the final battle goes down. And while this “Chekhov Gun” was a little more obvious, it still obeyed the rule of setting up an important item before it was needed.
END OF SPOILERS
So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, a good writer will use the Chekhov Gun by adding in seemingly innocuous items early into their story that will play a part in unraveling the later plot. There is still room for twists (as Stranger Things 3 proved), but providing a payoff to the audience is a hugely satisfying achievement.
What examples of Chekhov’s Gun have you seen?
Do you think modern television uses Chekov’s Gun more frequently than other media?
What’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and a McGuffin?