The Problem with the Gun on the Mantle

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
-- Anton Chekhov

This is good advice. By putting a loaded gun on stage (or on the mantle, in the other version of this quote), you are making a promise to the reader. If that gun doesn't go off, it's not only wasting words but it's kind of a let down. If a storm is brewing, it better hit by the end. If there are embarrassing secrets, their keepers must be embarrassed!

But there's a problem: if the gun always goes off, then as soon as it's introduced, the reader knows what will happen.

I noticed this while reading Duma Key by Stephen King. There's some early foreshadowing that basically told me how it would end and drained some of the tension. I respect Stephen King, so I won't spoil his novel by using it as an example. Instead, I'll spoil Avatar.

Jake learns the ways of the Na'vi -- a super tall, blue-skinned race of nature-loving aliens. One of their rites of passage is to bond with a predatory bird they use for transportation and war, which Jake does. But he's almost taken down by an even bigger predator called the Turok.

Jake's girlfriend tells him the Turok is the biggest predator on the planet. "It has only been tamed five times in our history," she says. "Those riders became legends. They brought all the tribes together, bringing peace to the world."

Gun. Mantle. You don't have to see the movie to know what they do with it. Foreshadowing is good, and Chekhov was right about using all the elements you put on stage. But if you're not careful, it becomes obvious and predictable.*

The trick? One trick is to be subtle. Subtle foreshadowing is the stuff you don't realize was there until after the gun goes off, then you're all, "Holy crap, it was there the whole time!"

Another trick is to foreshadow things so that the reader has to know how it happens. The Turok wasn't interesting because we knew the result: Jake would prove himself legend, bring the tribes together, and use their combined might to fight the humans. Contrast that with the other Avatar: the final showdown between Aang and Ozai is forecasted from episode 1, but you have to see it because (a) Ozai has to be killed and (b) Aang doesn't kill anybody.

If you must foreshadow plainly, then twist what the reader expects. The gun goes off, but it backfires on the shooter. Jake fails to bond with the Turok, but his girlfriend rescues him and she becomes the legendary rider.**

Like anything in writing, be intentional. Keep your promises to the reader, but don't stick to the letter of the promise. A predictable climax can be just as bad as a gun that doesn't go off.

* My only real complaint with Avatar was its predictability -- there was a lot more than just the Turok.

** Then the movie might not have been so much like this 20-second summary.


Christina Lee said...

good post! I agree about Avatar (good example), and about twisting it if you must foreshadow. So I just watched for the special effects ;--)

Adam Heine said...

That was easily my favorite part of the movie too, Christina :-)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Avatar was so easy on the eyes it was even more painful to see the cardboard characters and plot. Wait, what were we talking about? Right, foreshadowing.

I think it's tough because writers know what's coming, and it seems fairly obvious to them, because they thought it up! The twist is a great way to keep the unpredictability, but then you have to make sure it's plausible as well.

I try to make things subtle - or also spin the foreshadowing into a different context. There's a good reason for the foreshadowing to be there that has nothing to do with foreshadowing - a bit a writerly sleight of hand.

But then I get too subtle, and the readers are like, Huh?

The best is you know it's coming, but you can't see how it will possibly work out (see: Hunger Games).

Great post!

Adam Heine said...

Misdirection. That's a good one too, Susan.

I agree it's really hard to know how subtle is too subtle. Fortunately that's what beta readers are for :-)

dolorah said...

I walked away from that movie a bit disappointed. Aside from the awesome special effects, the plot was a basic Dances with Wolves meets The White Dragon.

Sometimes predictability is good, but when the whole plot is predictible, it kinda lessens the enjoyment.

Hmm, I didn't get that out of DUMA KEY. Maybe I should re-read it.

A very thought provoking post Adam.


Myrna Foster said...

How funny - I just referenced Chekhov's quote in a critique a couple of weeks ago.

Part of what makes J.K. Rowling so amazing is how she gives her readers all of the right information they need, but in such a way that it's still easy to misinterpret. Megan Whalen Turner does the same thing.

Unknown Blogger said...


Great Post!!!

I enjoy reading this blog not because I write, but because I think it makes me a smarter reader and viewer. This blog was eye opening. I hate when I get to the end of a movie and think "dangit - that was totally telegraphed, but I'm too dumb to have received the message." I'm now looking for the gun on the mantle.
Unfortunately, I still don't always see it. No spoiler here just in case, but the Mad Men season 4 finale gave you the loaded gun (like did everything but have it say "HI! I'm the loaded gun, wanna guess who I shoot?") and I COMPLETELY missed it. Ugh!

So, thanks for enlightening me. I'll try to do better next time.

(ps - Jamey says Hi to you and your family!)

Adam Heine said...

Hi, Andy (and Jamey, et al)!

It's not necessarily being too dumb to see the gun. Sometimes the writers just did a really good job at being subtle :-)