A few weekends ago, I watched Lethal Weapon 2 with my daughters and nephew. Early in the movie the main characters, Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), are startled by a worker at Murtaugh’s house using an air gun. Riggs and Murtaugh ask how the air gun works and then they move on to other matters. Much later in the movie, the nail gun makes another appearance as Murtaugh uses the nail gun to kill an attacker (which you can watch here).
The introduction, and then later use, of the nail gun is a spot-on example of the Lethal Weapon 2 screenwriter using the dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s Gun.”
Anton Chekhov was a 19th-century Russian playwright who wrote, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” His message is that narrative details should contribute to the overall story, and extemporaneous details shouldn’t be included unless they are meaningful. This principle is now known as “Chekhov’s Gun.”
Chekhov’s Gun is applicable to plot details beyond just guns; it applies to any detail to which the audience’s attention is drawn. It can be a car, a person, an animal, artwork, a website, and so on. For example, in Lethal Weapon 2, an attractive young woman named Rika van den Haas (played by Patsy Kensit) is briefly introduced early in the movie. Later in the movie, she becomes involved with Riggs romantically and then is killed by the bad guys, deepening Riggs’s resolve to bring them to justice (or kill them). That is a spot-on example of the screenwriter effectively using Chekhov’s Gun.