When we studied the climax scene, I said that the final climax and twist must seem “inevitable, not convenient.”
Not surprisingly, Chekhov put it a little better:
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. —Anton Chekhov
This concept is called “Chekhov’s Gun.” For an inevitable and satisfying ending, we need to scatter our “guns” throughout the rest of the novel, ready to be “fired” during the climax. Let’s breakdown how Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games apply the idea of Chekhov’s gun to the hero’s special talent or trait.
READY: Introduce a special skill
In the beginning, the hero discovers his special skill or reveals his unique personality trait. This is the equivalent of the “hanging the rifle on the wall” element of Chekhov’s gun.
- In Harry Potter, Harry discovers he is a natural at flying his broom and catching small objects. He first does this to catch a Remembrall: “. . . he was gathering speed in a steep dive, racing the ball . . . a foot from the ground he caught it, just in time to pull his broom straight . . .” (HP Ch.9).
- In Twilight, Bella reveals an important personality trait: self-sacrifice. Bella moved to Forks so that her mom and her mom’s boyfriend can travel together. She explains that her mother’s happiness is more important to her than her own. “’She stayed with me at first, but she missed him. It made her unhappy . . .’ ‘But now you’re unhappy,’ [Edward] pointed out. ‘And?’ I challenged.” (TW Ch.2).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss demonstrates that her special skill is solving problems through her knowledge of poisonous plants: “Many are edible, but one false mouthful and you’re dead. I checked and double-checked the plants I harvested with my father’s pictures. I kept us alive.” (HG Ch.4).
AIM: Demonstrate the skill
As the hero proceeds on his adventure, that same skill or personality trait comes in handy. In other words, the hero takes Chekhov’s Gun out to the shooting range for some practice.
- In Harry Potter, the Quidditch team recruits Harry to be the team Seeker because of his skill at flying and catching small objects. He uses his talent to win the game for his house: “— the next second, Harry had pulled out of the dive, his arm raised in triumph, the Snitch clasped in his hand.” (HP Ch.13).
- In Twilight, Bella’s tendency for self-sacrifice allows her to advance her romantic relationship with Edward. “I’m here . . . which, roughly translated, means I would rather die than stay away from you.” (TW Ch.13).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss is careful to avoid poisonous berries in order to survive. However, Peeta unknowingly gathers them and another tribute dies from eating them. When Katniss explained that he killed the tribute, he responds “’Doesn’t seem fair somehow. I mean, we would have both been dead, too, if she hadn’t eaten the berries first. . . .No, of course, we wouldn’t. You recognized them, didn’t you?'” (HG Ch.24).
FIRE! The special skill or trait saves the day
Finally, the big moment arrives and the hero must use his special skill in a scene leading up to the climax. The stakes are a lot higher now. Even with all the foreshadowing, the reader never saw it coming.
- In the series of tests leading up to the climax, Harry must grab a flying key out of the air to get through the door. “Harry streaked after it; it sped toward the wall, Harry leaned forward and with a nasty, crunching noise, pinned it against the stone with one hand.” (HP Ch.16).
- Bella decides to confront the vampire alone, again demonstrating her willingness to sacrifice herself to save both her mom and Edward from getting hurt. “He has my mom, and I have to try. I know it may not work. I am so very, very sorry. …I can’t bear it if anyone has to be hurt because of me, especially you.” (TW Ch.21).
- The poisonous berries return for the climax, and Katniss saves the day with her quick-thinking. “’Trust me,’ I whisper. He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go. I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own.” (HG Ch.25).
Why it Works
Using this method gives a satisfying twist– Of course, it was there the whole time! It’s surprising, but it still “fits.”
Using “Chekhov’s guns” is especially effective if the special skill isn’t usually applicable to whatever the hero needs to do– who would have thought that Harry’s quidditch skills would contribute to his fight against Voldemort? Or that Katniss would use the berries offensively against the Gamemakers?
You may want to work backwards and decide on what skill will save the day during the ending, and then weave the “Chekhov’s guns” into earlier scenes.
Let’s add three Chekhov’s Gun cards to the master outline. The first one will go in Chapter 2 and will serve as the introduction of the trait or skill.
The second card will go in Chapter 15 and represent when the hero tests out the trait in the middle of the novel.
The third card will go directly before the climax, in Chapter 18.
Remember when we counted the number of obstacles along the hero’s journey, and we categorized them as win, lose, or draw? The Chekhov’s Gun cards in Chapters 15 and 18 will take “win” slots, since both scenes are successful for the hero. Head over to the master outline to see it all in action.
Now get out there and fire off some pages!