In 2010, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth, The Guardian recalled his “brilliance in brief,” not only his own accomplishments but the advice he offered to other writers, the dictates he handed down:
The most famous of these is commonly known as Chekhov’s Gun, which he defined in a letter to Lazarev-Gruzinsky, his one-time co-writer, in November 1889: “one should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” he wrote. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The essence of the metaphor is clear: economy is everything.
Chekhov didn’t write mystery stories, so he had no reason to make use of red herrings, which serve the opposite function. He also had little needs for guns in his own life, since he didn’t enjoy hunting. Nor did he always conform to his own advice: In the second act of The Cherry Orchard, the clown-like Yepikhódov brandishes a loaded revolver. It’s not giving away much to point out that he never uses it; such a death would, of course, have carried the play into melodrama and away from the “anti-drama” of real life.
Just another reason it’s best to call them principles, not rules.
Image: Still from the 2010 film Anton Chekhov’s The Duel.