Locked and loaded!

A few weeks ago I watched the Jungle Book with my mom and my sister.  Now I didn’t watch the original but in the opening scene already I knew what Mowgli would use to overcome Shere Khan.  How, you ask?  I’ll tell you but I have to warn you, it will probably spoil most movies you watch from this point forward so read on only if you are prepared to live with the consequences.  Also I am going to have to use a couple recent movies to illustrate the concept so there are probably a few more spoilers to come as well! Proceed with caution…

The opening scene of the Jungle Book has Mowgli training with the other wolf cubs and Bagheera is able to catch him because he steps on a dead tree branch that breaks slowing him down. Bagheera then gives him advice about sticking with the rest of the pack and also advises him to look out for dead trees and at that point, perhaps 2 minutes into the movie, Chekhov’s gun was loaded.  Who is Chekhov and why is his gun in the Jungle Book you may ask?  Well, Anton Chekhov was a playwright and short story writer, who in the late 1800’s wrote a letter to a fellow playwright extolling the virtues of removing unnecessary or superfluous elements in any story.  Chekhov said if a gun is introduced onto the stage in act one, then in act two or act three, that gun has to be fired, or it should not have been on the stage.  Chekhov’s gun is the principle used in writing and story telling that ensures only the essential elements are included in a story.  A corollary of sorts is therefore if an element is introduced into a story, it will inevitably be of some significance later on.

I did not know about Chekhov’s gun until a few months back.  And I found out by pure chance.  A friend sent a Reddit link to a whole collection of gifs called Chekov’s Ditch, which was a hilarious compilation of people falling into various things including pools, manholes and puddles that are surprisingly deeper than anyone would have initially thought. But the obvious question for me after wiping away the tears from laughing too hard was why are they called Chekhov’s ditches.  So I googled it and read up the short description of what the Chekov’s gun principle is and something clicked into place upstairs.

Since then almost every movie I have watched has been spoiled because I have found that many good films follow the script writing credence advocated by Chekov more than a century ago.  Some, like the Jungle Book, do not detract too much from the movie experience.  The Checkov’s gun of the dead tree is loaded early but you can watch the movie without losing too much interest still knowing that somewhere later in the movie the tree will be back to play a pivotal role.  However, there are other movies where you don’t want to keep watching because you know how it will play out.  I watched Bridge to Terabithia for the first time last week and could immediately tell the rope over the creek would break at some point in the movie.  It didn’t immediately break though and i kept on watching as the characters were developed in the movie and then at some point I found myself wanting to stop watching because I knew that when the rope did break one of the main characters (or worse still the very cute 6 or 7 year old played by Bailey Madison) was going to die.  And I didn’t want that to happen.  In fact I was already crying when the boy left to the museum without the girl… Movies where a child or animal dies are always the saddest.  My Girl for instance, when Macaulay Culkin’s character goes back into the woods to fetch the ring but is stung by the bees.  The gun there was the fact that Macaulay’s character was allergic to bee stings (along with a host of other allergies) was also introduced quite early in the movie.

Once I had discovered the principle I started looking back at the movies I have watched and quite a few of them seemingly use elements that are Chekov’s guns in there story line.  The spinning top in Inception, the Mosasaur in Jurassic World, even the wushi finger hold in Kung Fu Panda, Skadoosh!  Part of the  reason could also be that movie script writing is also formulaic, so there are bound to be instances or elements of Chekov’s gun in most story lines, some obvious and some less so.  A friend challenged me by asking what element in Star Wars fitted the principle and initially I could not come up with an answer and thought that maybe George Lucas used other writing principles (probably a McGuff) for the story line.  Then I remembered Pitch Perfect and Anna Kendrick’s character saying that Vader literally means father and there it was…

Knowing the principle means that I can now also apply it into my own life, especially my photography.  After all photography is also about telling a story and following Chekov’s advice, anything unnecessary in a scene that does not add to the story you are trying to tell should be removed (when composing or in post editing).  In nature photography that’s easier in that one would ideally want to remove any man made objects from the shot when composing unless it is interacting with the subject of the photo.  In camera club last week the presiding judge pointed out a green water tank in an otherwise natural scene.  Although it was small and out of focus, once you had seen it, it pulled your attention back and detracted from the rest of the photo.  Similarly, at work, there is sometimes a tendency to do things that may not add value in the greater scheme of things.  The duty then becomes to question how what you are doing will fit into the greater picture (or the organisational story line if you wish).  And if you find that it is superfluous it is best to get rid of it.  Very much like the keep it simple silly rule…

I would love to hear what you think about Chekov’s gun, if you are not cursing me for spoiling almost every movie you watch from here on.  And if you can think of any good examples please leave a comment with them as well!

Post Script: I received a comment on my post in Facebook that went along the lines that the Universe follows Checkov’s principle when writing the story of your life.  So anything that you experience, anything that remarkable, good and bad, is an essential element to your story and nothing is superfluous.  One day it will all make sense, you just have to trust in the story writer and know that in the end everything will be OK! 

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