Bones’ Love Affair With Chekhov’s Gun


After reading that headline, your first thought is probably either something dirty or “What the hell is Chekhov’s gun?” Well, that’s what I’m here to explain.

Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique in which a seemingly innocuous element is introduced early in a narrative, and it is revealed to be much more important later on. Anton Chekhov introduced this concept and at one point said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This one statement is what led to the technique being known as Chekhov’s gun, but it is often misunderstood as applying only to inanimate objects or being used merely as a form of foreshadowing. But really, the principle means nothing should be included in a story unless it is important in some way.

Chekhov’s gun most commonly applies to murder mysteries, since the main objective of such narratives is to direct your attention to other people or things. Basically, their goal is to mislead you into believing one thing, and then shock you by revealing the true reality of something or someone mentioned earlier. It’s one of the main reasons why “The Da Vinci Code” was such a successful book.

Now, where does Bones fit into this discussion? The show can be categorized as a murder-mystery, so the writers need to abide by the Chekhov’s gun principle. Unfortunately, the writers follow this standard so much that each episode begins to follow the same pattern.

In virtually every Bones episode, Brennan and Booth begin their investigation by questioning a series of persons of interest. Generally this includes friends or family members of the deceased and possible suspects. There is almost always one very obvious prime suspect with transparent motive and means, but this person is never the real killer.

As the episode goes on, questioning reveals multiple more suspects. The show spends a few minutes with each of these people as the new lead suspect only to prove they were unable to commit the murder.

Almost invariably, in the final 10 minutes they then find a new scrap of evidence that leads back to one of the people from the original line of questioning who seemed to not be involved in the case at all. Generally this person was in only one scene and originally was questioned for basic information, and neither Brennan nor Booth mentioned them as a possible suspect.

I’ll admit that my viewing of Bones has consisted of watching several episodes at a time, so patterns start to become more obvious than if I watched them a week apart. But regardless, the pattern is there.

Do a test for yourself: Pick out any run-of-the-mill episode (this rules out big arc episodes like Gravedigger or Gormogon), and pay close attention to how and when each character is established. If a character is introduced in the first act (between the opening credits and the next commercial break) and is not seen or heard from in the next 30 minutes, they are probably the guilty party.

I’m not saying Bones is a bad show; the most interesting part of the writing is the characters, not the cases. The show writers both point out and parody this whenever they talk about the success of Brennan’s books. But the case portion of the show is very formulaic, mostly because of the strict adherence to Chekhov’s gun.

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1 Comment

Filed under Television

One response to “Bones’ Love Affair With Chekhov’s Gun

  1. Me

    Also known as the ‘Scooby Doo’ effect. In every Scooby Doo episode the villain is always in a monster disguise. The kids are supposed to be scared off by the monsters. Those pesky kids always find a way to tear off the monster mask to reveal the kind old lady, quiet librarian, or unassuming janitor underneath. The formula is always the same. We love Scooby in spite of it.

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