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<   No. 2191   2009-01-25   >

Comic #2191

1 {scene: Ñ's office at British Secret Service headquarters}
1 Ñ: Ü, show Stud the equipment.
2 Ü: Looks like an ordinary briefcase, but this contains exactly the items you'll almost certainly need on your mission.
3 Ü: Tear gas canister, disguised as talcum powder. A throwing knife. And fifty gold sovereigns.
4 Stud: And what's this?
4 Ü: Chekhov's gun.

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Chekhov's Gun (no, not that Chekov) is a common literary technique in which a prop is introduced early in a story for the specific reason that it is necessary for that prop to be used later in the story. The name derives from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who formulated the technique in terms of its opposite:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
In other words, if something is not going to be important to the story later on, you shouldn't bother mentioning it. The idea is that a prop which is specifically mentioned (and thus becomes imbued with some importance to the audience) but then never used can play on the audience's mind and come across as an unsatisfying loose end.

Like all principles of good writing, you can break this one if you have a good reason. Mentioning an object for the express purpose of making the audience think it is important, only for it not to be, is a red herring. The good thing these days is that most audiences have been exposed to enough fiction to be familiar with the concepts of both Chekhov's guns and red herrings (at least intuitively, if not formally). So as a writer, you can use either version, and the audience won't know quite what to expect.

Unless you're writing a James Bond movie, in which case each and every piece of equipment Q gives to Bond will be used to save his life at some point from some convoluted scenario in which only that particular piece of equipment will do.

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