Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique in which any object given a special significance within a story has to be used at some later point. The technique comes from Anton Chekhov, who explained that a pistol hung on a wall in the first act of the play should be used at some time later in the story. If the gun isn’t used, then it serves no purpose and is a mere distraction — unless it is meant to be a red herring. The ideal situation for Chekhov’s gun is one in which the object is noted but partially forgotten in the first instance, and then becomes relevant later in the story.
The biggest misconception about Chekhov’s gun is that it is equivalent to foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is where the writer leaves little clues about future events in the narrative, which are more clearly understood after the event is known. Chekhov’s gun relates more to removing extraneous information and descriptions than layering clues in for the reader. If a loaded gun is described in the first act and never fired, there is no need to describe the gun at all, because it is irrelevant.
Another key point is that Chekhov’s gun does not relate to guns specifically. Instead, the technique relates to any object within a story which is given special significance, so that the audience would expect it to serve some function. For example, a character may discover a key on a chain early in the story, and later find that it opens the door to a forgotten treasure. The gun referred to is merely figurative, referring to an object which is “loaded” with significance. The audience would be understandably disappointed if the key in the example was never referred to again or was useless.
Red herrings are plot devices which can be related to Chekhov’s gun. In the same way as a “loaded gun,” a red herring is introduced and given some significance early in a story. This prompts the reader to assume it will have importance later on, but in fact, it only serves as a diversion. Red herrings are in some ways the opposite of Chekhov’s gun, being something given significance which isn’t directly significant. The real significance of a red herring is that it distracts the audience from the true plot of the story, and therefore does serve a purpose in some sense.