Chekhov, master of the short story, gave this advice: If it's not essential, don't include it in the story.
The term has come to mean "an insignificant object that later turns out to be important." For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to the Doomsday Device, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important. The necklace was essential to the story, but its introduction downplayed its importance. Chekhov's advice was not necessarily to conceal importance, but to just not spend time on things that are not important.
A lot of people consider the phrase "Chekhov's gun" synonymous with foreshadowing. They are related; a gun that goes off in the third act that hasn't been in the play at all before then is going to feel like a real Ass Pull, but that's not key to the meaning of the phrase.
As a result of the success of franchises like Lost or Harry Potter, viewers and fans of Myth Arc-laden and/or carefully written shows and books have become accustomed to obsessing over minuscule details and looking out for Chekhov's Guns everywhere and anywhere... whether they actually exist or not. We call these Epileptic Trees and Wild Mass Guessing.
Part A: General cases
- Androcles' Lion: Basically Chekhov's good deed.
- Chekhov's Armoury: A whole stash of Chekhov's Guns.
- Chekhov's Army: A whole stash of Chekhov's Gunmen.
- Chekhov's Boomerang: Chekhov's Gun has already been used once, then unexpectedly turns up again.
- Chekhov's Classroom: Remember what you heard, when you weren't even listening?
- Chekhov's Exhibit: Chekhov's Gun will be put on display for the general public to gawk at. Before it's stolen, of course.
- Chekhov's Gag: You thought Chekhov's Gun was only introduced for the Rule of Funny, but later it goes off dramatically.
- Chekhov's Gift: Happy birthday! Here, have a Chekhov's Gun.
- Chekhov's Gunman: When a character seems to be there for no reason, they must be important. In other words, the Chekhov's Gun is a character rather than an object.
- Chekhov's Hobby: Like Chekhov's Skill, but it is merely established that the character has the skill rather than showing them using or learning it beforehand.
- Chekhov's News: When a news report mentions something that will be important later.
- Chekhov's Skill: What you learn along the way can be a Chekhov's Gun.
- Workplace-Acquired Abilities: When the abilities obtained in one's professional career come in handy.
- Chekhov's Volcano: If it wasn't going to erupt, it would have just been a mountain.
- Conspicuously Light Patch: The Chekhov's Gun of old, traditional animation, where anything obviously not part of the static (and often painted) background layer will be put to use by a character.
- Conspicuous CG: The analogue for CGI, newer cartoons, and more video games.
- Empty Room Psych: In a video game, all places must have a purpose.
- Forbidden Chekhov's Gun: Never do this. Ever. (Unless you've crossed the Godzilla Threshold or something...)
- Incurable Cough of Death: The medical Chekhov's Gun. If you coughed in the first act, you can bet that you'll be dead by the third. Same for unexplained itches, unless they lead to something more... interesting.
- Infallible Babble: If prophecies are always right, then nonsense, hearsay and barely comprehensible rumours are even moreso.
- Ironic Echo: A line of dialogue early on is repeated in an ironic context, showing a change in meaning or of heart.
- It May Help You on Your Quest: Take this dull, seemingly-useless (or even mostly-useless) item. Go on, take it! You will be most definitely needing it.
- The Legend of Chekhov: If someone tells a fairy tale or legend, it'll turn out to be true. And, outright disbelieving it only ups the uncomfortable nature of the truth when it hits.
- Meaningful Echo: A line of idle dialogue is later repeated in a context that gives it additional significance.
- Meaningful Name: If the character's name has a special meaning but no immediate relevance, then the relevance will come later.
- Not-So-Small Role: Character #23 is played by whom? They'd never have signed on for so small a role!
- Notice This: It must be important to the plot — look where it's positioned and lighted.
- Plot Device All Along: Something mundane that the character uses regularly and constantly turns out to have been a highly important artifact.
- The Promise: A verbal, visual or conceptual Chekhov's Gun where a promise is made and later comes up. Whereupon the promiser will be required to act; or, in unlucky cases, the promisee.
- Rule of Pool: Someone will fall or be pushed into that pool.
- Someday This Will Come in Handy: Useless knowledge is always important. Compare Classroom, Skill.
- You Will Know What to Do: You are told it will be important, but you aren't told when, where, how, or why. And, you'll be lucky if you know exactly what it does before the consequences hit, too.
Part B: You know what will invariably happen when you see any of these in a scene....
- Funeral Ashes
- Someone Carrying a Cake
- Someone wearing new clothes
- Doomed Supermarket Display
- Fish Tank
- Someone checking a Fatal Family Photo before a fight
- Fruit Cart
- The Precious, Precious Car
- Priceless Ming Vase
- Someone wearing a pearl necklace
- Rope Bridge
- Sheet of Glass
Compare Schrödinger's Gun for a competing dramatic weapons dealer. Contrast to a Red Herring, where something shown early appears to be significant but was planted there just to throw you off. If there are a whole bunch of Red Herrings you might be looking at The Walrus Was Paul, where a writer wants to mock fans of Chekhov's Guns by repeatedly messing with them. If there is a very long delay between the introduction of the element and its use in the story, to the point where most of the audience has long forgotten about it, you're looking at a Brick Joke. The MacGuffin is significant for some (possibly even plot-relevant) reason, but we never find out just what it is. If the Chekhov's Gun was hiding on the other side of the Fourth Wall, you have a Ninja Prop. If a Chekhov's gun is set up but dropped (but was neither intended to distract as a Red Herring nor to be brought up later, as a Brick Joke), you have either an Aborted Arc or What Happened to the Mouse?, depending on the importance of the gun to the overall plot. If something looks like a Chekhov's Gun but is really just a piece of Narrative Filigree then that's a Cow Tool.
The Magnetic Plot Device can be a standing Chekhov's Gun to blame the plot on. The Impossible Task may require one. Also see Ass Pull, which is what the viewer can sometimes confuse this with if they miss the gun the first time (or if the gun was edited out in an adaptation).
A reverse Chekhov's Gun is also common. Explicitly showing a normally armed character forgetting his gun when leaving the house for example. The experienced troper knows that this will become the day he needs it the most.
Also referred to as "the Indiana Jones principle" in Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor, named after Indy's early encounter with a snake at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark and how it set up his much larger encounter with them later on. Another term for this is "setup and payoff", a technique used by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale for the Back to the Future trilogy and regularly taught to scriptwriters nowadays.
This trope contains spoilers by necessity. Read at your own risk.
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- Katawa Shoujo does this in Lilly's Good Ending. Lilly heads to the airport to leave for Scotland, never to return, a Race for Your Love scene ensues, but Hisao has a heart attack mere meters away from her. He comes to 2 days later in a hospital bed. He's laying there resenting himself for not being able to stop Lilly leaving and listening to the EKG speaker, when he notices a second sound in the room. He turns his head to the side and notices the music box he bought for Lilly back in Act 2. A few seconds later, Lilly herself comes into the room, having never left Japan.