Chekhov’s Gun & Boyhood

I need to start by saying how wonderful it is that Boyhood is getting the recognition it deserves. The genius & courage of Richard Linklater is vastly under appreciated by the general public. I hope he wins all the Oscars ever and never has to fight for financing for the rest of his life.

The great dramatist Anton Chekhov had a saying that is now known as Chekhov’s Gun:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” (Wikipedia)

In general, this is extremely sound advice. When you begin your story, you are given the audiences attention. This is a blessing. The supreme gift of storytelling. They have no reason to distrust your ability to hold their interest, and until you give them a reason to do so, they will enthusiastically follow you anywhere.

Although an average moviegoer won’t be able to articulate it, when you start cramming irrelevant information down their throats, everything will go wrong. At its best, writing is a supremely elegant act of juggling. In ACT I, we toss a hundred balls into the air. By the end of ACT III– after flying through the air and knocking into on another – they’ve all been caught.

Look at the scene in Boyhood where Mason hangs out in the construction site with his friend’s older brother. It’s classic Linklater realism. A handful of teenagers, messing around, breaking stuff, timidly drinking beer, and bragging about sex.

There is a moment at the head of the scene where the boys are handling loose blades from a table saw. With their bare hands, they raise them over their heads and throw them into a slab of drywall. Aside from a “hey, check this out” their conversation doesn’t stop.

This happens a few times… and every single time, every single person in the audience is thinking the same thing: he is going to cut his goddamn hand off. Or it’s going to fly into someone’s face. Or it’s going to sever an artery. We can already hear the sirens. The screaming. The blood.

But nothing happens. They get bored and move on.*

According to Chekhov’s principle, was this scene a success?

Although it’s surely meant to be seen as a principle, rather than a rule, lets take the wording literally for sake of argument. Chekhov says that the gun must be fired. A gun is a tool used for shooting, and so if it is to be used, it must be fired.

But if we’re to compare it to the Boyhood scene, we’d say that the gun was indeed taken off the wall… but was just waved around, the threat of its discharge weighed heavily over the scene. Perhaps Chekhov would say this is good but not great; there would surely be more dramatic “impact” if the gun was fired. But we can still surely say that there was some effect on the scene. Tension was generated.

I think that if the Boyhood scene were to be approached by a more unimaginative writer than Linklater, the blade would have indeed been lodged in some kids chest cavity. Off to the hospital we go. Maybe he dies. Remorse & legal proceedings ensue.

But in the case of Boyhood, the blade somewhat insignificant. It’s purpose is merely to create tension. To color this scene and speak to who these characters are: reckless & naïve teenage boys.

The actual story of Boyhood is fairly commonplace. It’s not about anything particularly horrific or shocking. Its magic lies in the sleight of hand of the characters aging before our eyes. It is this cinematic trick that Linklater is using to say “you’re going to feel a realism you’ve never felt before.”

Watching the scene, the question in the audiences mind is “oh god, is this something horrible going to happen?” The answer is no. I think there are a lot of writers who would consider this scene flawed because the answer is no… but that becomes a question of personal taste and style. Of maturity and restraint.

Chekhov’s rule is more directly applied to a scenario in which you’re walking up to the home of your main character and there’s a Formula One car sitting in the driveway. At some point, you’d better pay that car off to the audience.

But on the other hand, if you’re making an absurdist comedy along the lines of Idiocracy, the car may just be a visual gag. Something to be seen in passing. Either you get it or you don’t, but it’s not central to the story.

Ultimately it comes down to two things: tone & your audience’s bandwidth.

Tone is everything in filmmaking. Specifically, consistency in tone. Having that F1 car in Boyhood would throw the tone way off. Having it in something like Idiocracy might not. This is an extreme example but the concept should apply down to the smallest detail. A funny hat. An odd pet. Like colors on a painters palette, they’re all options. Some are bright and loud. Others are muted and quiet.

Gauging your audience’s bandwidth for information means always being conscious of how much you’re asking them to process. The reality is that for most people this bandwidth is pretty low. It is easy to think you’re writing successfully by continuously introducing new elements to your audience – but you’re failing. This amounts to dangling shiny objects in front of an infant. This amounts to violating what Chekhov insists every writer try to do.

To take what you already have, a handful of elements, and try to evolve & reinvent them in the audiences mind over the course of the story – that is the true challenge.

*I must credit the great Bret Easton Ellis for illuminating this fact on his Podcast.

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