Red Herrings, MacGuffins, and Chekhov's Gun

As there’s no LOST this week, and next Wednesday (April 26) is another LOST clip show, I thought I’d use this mini-hiatus to explore some of the plot devices used in LOST.

Many informed sources have written about the number and types of plots that exist, including the commonly known conflict schema: “man vs. himself; man vs. man; man vs. nature, etc.”. Ronald Tobias describes 20 master plots; Georges Polti named 36 dramatic situations. Rudyard Kipling thought there were 69 basic storylines.

In an episodic narrative like LOST, the writers make use of plot devices in order to create problems or tension, or to resolve them. Here are just a few examples:

Red Herring:

This is a prominently placed clue that leads nowhere, used as misdirection in order to fool viewers into falling for a “twist”. An example of this would be Jin’s burned hands, in “…In Translation”. We are to assume that since his hands are burned, he is the arsonist. The twist comes when we learn that Walt burned the raft, and that Jin burned himself trying to extinguish the flames. There may be other examples, but as LOST is not a completed narrative, it is often quite difficult to determine what is a red herring, and what may be a real clue, later on.


This is slightly different from a red herring, in that a MacGuffin is integral to advancing the plot, through character motivation, and yet its significance is never revealed to the viewers. The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and he used it often in his films. In LOST, again, it is very difficult to determine what is and what is not a MacGuffin, simply because the story is incomplete. Kate’s toy plane may be a MacGuffin; it drove her character to rob a bank, shoot her accomplices, and risk life in prison… for what? A little memento of her deceased darling Tom? Maybe Hurley’s numbers are a MacGuffin. Will we ever discover their true nature and significance? One could even say that the Island itself is a MacGuffin. Indeed, there are many, many possibilities, but until the narrative is concluded we can’t know for certain.

Chekhov’s Gun:

This may be the opposite of a red herring. It follows what is known as the “Law of Conservation of Detail”. Basically, a gun (or any other detail) that is shown in the beginning of the narrative, has great significance later on. From episode to episode, we have seen many of these devices, such as Locke’s toe wiggle at the beginning of “Walkabout”. In the overall story arc, however, it is again difficult to determine the importance of significant clues, until we have all available information. Is the Black Rock a red herring, a MacGuffin, or a Chekhov’s gun? The smoke monster? The cable on the beach? Adam and Eve?

What do you think?

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17 Responses to Red Herrings, MacGuffins, and Chekhov's Gun

  1. Louis says:

    Very interesting, good work.

  2. Found says:

    One of the things I really dig about the show is the fact that any “clue” not resolved in the same episode is fair game for the future. (eg: the huge polar bear being referenced on the Lockdown map)

    It’s as if the writers keep a running catalog of stuff that’s unresolved and they keep tossing in tidbits here and there. I’ve never watched a show that has made me pay such close attention to detail while watching and retention of detail from week to week.

    …not that Baywatch reruns don’t have their merits, too. I loved that post. :)

  3. violet says:

    Job – do you study/teach literature/film?

    I like it when films/shows have the Chekhov’s gun element, like David Mamet films. :) Hopefully Lost uses this device, which assures us of an explanation (and which, according to John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is what every good/responsible writer should do in order not to piss off the reader — and in this case, the viewer).

  4. Lesley says:

    Great analysis! I think the entertainment is trying to figure it all out – and we get a great cast with some terrific acting too. There are constant reveals that keep you hooked and I do think they do a great job with that. We are never totally in the dark. You are correct that the entire experience is more like the analysis of a story than watching tv. If it was not for Lostpedia I admit I have considered keeping track of everything myself. Looking forward to May 3!

  5. Kathi says:


    Great article! Another great post. Looking forward to the next one.

  6. Job says:

    Sorry Billy Joe, I already worship bread mold, but your religion sounds just as interesting.

    *rolls eyes*

    Back to the subject at hand. One of the things I love most about LOST is the writers’ ability to sustain the tension and mystery over the course of the season. Sure, there have been highs and lows in terms of entertainment value, but overall, I have been impressed with the attention to detail paid by the entire production staff.

    The blast door map is obviously a huge clue to the island’s secrets, and IMHO, was included to attract more “casual” viewers to more deeply explore the LOST mythology.

    violet – I am not a teacher of film or literature, nor am I a student in the classic sense of the word. I am more of a dilettante, and I like to analyse LOST, which, to me, is the best-written show on television.

  7. Cecilia says:

    Neat article, Job, I learned a lot. I had never heard of a Chekhov’s Gun device before, though I instantly recognized what it was… it’s so frequently used in mystery novels (and being a big Christie fan… you can’t go without one!). I think Rose’s recognizing the monster sounds probably qualifies, only time will tell. Other things that pop to mind:

    Missing Cindy
    Jin’s watch <— big one, I think!!!
    Apollo Bars
    Latin phrases on the map
    The Black Rock being stranded several miles inland
    Adam & Eve

  8. Job says:

    Hey C.! Chekhov wrote that if you place a gun onstage in Act I, you’d better use it by Act III (not his exact words, mind you). ;-)

    This is just a dramatic type of foreshadowing–used by Agatha Christie, and almost every other mystery author.

    Here’s another: Remember when Arzt says, “If you don’t want to blow up, I’m coming with you”? This type of foreshadowing is known as “retirony” (thanks to the Simpsons’ Chief Wiggins–who predicted that he would be shot dead 3 days before retirement).

  9. Lesley says:

    How about these?

    Kate’s Horse
    Henry Gale and/or the balloon
    The vaccine bottles inside the hatch
    New washer and dryer inside the hatch
    The missing parts of the DHARMA tape
    The books and/or music inside the hatch
    Jack’s tattoos
    Jack’s wife telling him she is NOT pregnant
    Quarantine signs inside the hatches
    ID numbers on the DHARMA food
    People connections in the backstories
    Picture in the backstories
    The French song

    Stop me please….You guys really make me think! I love it, keep ‘em comming. Thanks!

  10. Andy says:

    I was rewatching some season 1 episodes, and got to thinking…

    Could Jack’s father’s missing body be a MacGuffin? Unless his father is ultimately shown to be the “Him” all the Others are mentioning, I doubt we’ll ever discover the final resting place of his body.

  11. LostDamery says:

    I dont believe in Ism’s … I am the Walrus.

    Sorry, not sure where that came from.
    See what happens when we have reruns. However, I do like to go back and watch the earlier shows and dig for more clues.

    As far as the writing style, I think the show is just our modern version of cliff hangers. We get some resolution each show and then a cliff hanger to keep you coming back to see if our HERO(‘s) died in the explosion. I like this king of writing it is a journey and a ride and it is fiction and if it helps me escape for a short amount of time nothing wrong with that.

    However does anyone know about the three headed dog guarding Hades and how the we have seen maybe 2 “creatures” on the island that are bringing fear to the losties….

  12. frenchy_florims says:

    Hey Job ! This is a very interesting post, where did you get this great knowledge, are you a literary teacher or something like that ?

    I might have found an interesting clue, watching the latest episode, and I am so happy because it is thanks to the fact I am French ! Look at the end of the episode, you gotta pay attention to the paper Locke is using to draw the map. On it, this is a French poem by Alfred de Musset (a Romantic poet, XIXth century). This is not famous at all, never heard about it, it is called “Sur les débuts de Rachel et Pauline Garcia” (basically “about the birth of R.and P. Garcia”), Musset was in love with one of them I think or maybe both.

    The poem is quite interesting for the story, it speaks about one guy thinking about nature, and reading some latin poetry stuff and the poem basically says “anyway we don’t care about complex thoughts and erudition, let’s look at the sheerness and what the nature did, because it created two wonderful and beautiful twin girls”. (some fansites translated it in English but I hardly understood it in French …)
    So I really found amazing that the authors of Lost could have chosen this particular poetry, I mean there are billion of other better poems they could have picked (why this one about twin girls cherished by the poet ?) !

    My own theory would be : there could be a story about twins soon involving a family mystery among the losties.

    What do you say about that Job ? A red herring, a mac guffin, a checkov’s gun ?

    Congratulations for your very interesting post !

  13. Job says:

    Hi frenchy. Good to see you again. Actually, the two girls in the title of de Musset’s poem are not twins, or even sisters. They were young actresses with whom the poet was having affairs at the time (1838-1839). Elizabeth-Rachel Félix was known only as Rachel (think Cher or Madonna), while Pauline Garcia later married Louis Viardot and became a famous opera singer.

    My theory about the appearance of this poem in the hatch has to do with Pauline Viardot’s relationship to Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. The theory is rather long and convoluted, so rather than post it here, I will link the original.

    for info: my handle at losttv-forum is camelsmoker

  14. Cecilia says:

    Leslie, I love your list! I totally believe that the french song will be of importance later. I think there’s something in the lyrics that holds answers. I think Jack’s tattoos might just be coincidentally a good fit, though, because they are real tattoos that the actor got long before the series.

    On retirony, this is so much fun when you look back on old DVDs with new knowledge. For example, in S1, Walt looks very trepidatious about the raft trip before they leave, and asks his father, “What if we die? What if we get attacked by a shark?” And Michael just laughs. Also, there are lots of scenes where the camera focuses ominously on Jin and Sun while Claire is still pregnant, and they express concern for the baby… Jin seems like he genuinely loves children, and kisses Aaron on the forehead goodbye before the raft leaves, whereas Sun always looks like she has mixed feelings.

  15. frenchy_florims says:

    Man your theory is quite impressive, so is your knowledge in literature. Of course if you are right about this allusion of this poem (Turgenev/Dostoeivsky rivalry), that would be amazing regarding the level of culture of the Lost authors : I mean man someone really has to study literature for a very long time to know who was Pauline Viardot and find this peculiar poem (you know even you who seem to be a “literary king”, you probably found this historical link on the web). For how long Lost is written by literature college specialists ?

    Anyway, I wasn’t aware of this rivalry between those two writers (actually I never read a book by Turgenev …), and I really thank you for this f… interesting theory !
    In my opinion, this is too difficult to handle for people who write Lost to be a real theory. But it gives a real fascinating enlightement about how Locke could me mysterious.
    Also, you may be right about Hemingway substituted to Turgenev, because I would not imagine a ABC show speaking of him : Hemingway seems “a bite” more famous … especially in the USA.

    But if you think about the show, nothing foresees a possible rivalry between Jack and Locke : I believe we should only see those literature clues as important details for the people like us who wish to improve their philosophical view about this show.

    Anyway I can’t think now about something smart to say after reading your posts, congratulations Job ! And please keep writing about the show, it’s really really great !

  16. Destroyer of Worlds says:

    Umm anyone got any thoughts on the glass eye found by the tailies in their little hatch?

    Part of a costume used by “the others” (this was their way of giving a slight clue to viewers about) or you think its something deeper?

    I’ve been wondering about it for awhile now and after reading this post my curiosity has been sparked again.

    Surely something like a glass eye (which was clearly introduced for a reason) will be left untouched by the writers.

    My personal idea is that at some stage or other a retinal scan might be needed to gain access to something/somewhere.

  17. jimseas says:

    I am posting this here b/c it isn’t plot related but is related to the dramatic structure of the show.

    Last week’s episode took the show in a new direction from previous plot revelations. In the past, we learned about stuff ON THE ISLAND as the characters themselves learned them. It is true that not all characters were in on the joke (so to speak) but at least some were. For instance, Kate finds the fake beard and clothes and eventually tells Jack. Or when Locke and Boone find the hatch. We, the audience, discover these things as the characters do.

    This has also worked the other way around. Walt sets the raft on fire, but we don’t see him do it. We don’t know it was him until Locke confronts him with it. We, the audience, are in the dark the same as the characters. Likewise when Locke knocks out Sayid in Season one.

    Notice I emphasized these things all happened ON THE ISLAND. The flashbacks are a different story.

    So, has the show now taken a different turn when it comes to plot revelation? We, the audience, know what Michael did. Granted, there may be a survivor and I won’t get into that on this thread. BUT the other Losties won’t know what we know.

    I’m a little bit dismayed. The show has taken us out of a quasi-first person position and relegated us to spectator. Is this simply a dramatic device, albeit one that the show hasn’t used before but all of a sudden decided to use now? Or was there a more deliberate choice in the dramatic revelation occurring this way? Of course, previously we were supposed to feel like a Lostie ourselves, discovering as they discover. We were too close to see the picture from any OTHER point of view. Now, could they be moving us in the OTHER direction, forcing us to step back and acquire a new perspective?

    Just some thoughts, would love feedback.

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