This is a very difficult post for me to write because I’m not sure of the technical terms I’m using. The best term to use is “item,” and it refers to anything that a character physically uses that has great significance, either for the plot or symbolic significance. The best example I could think of would be the magical items featured in many fantasy novels (the One Ring in Lord of the Rings). But it’s not generally listed as a literary element the same way characters, plot, or tone are.
In general, when writers talk about items, they refer to Chekhov’s Gun or symbolism. An item is either important because a writer refers to it and then doesn’t use it, or if the item imparts great significance to the story. Rarely do they just talk about how to use items effectively.
Truth be told, I’m really bad at using items this way and am also pretty bad I’m forgetting things early in a story and never referring to them later. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about this. But if only experts were allowed on the Internet, it would be a pretty barren (and boring) place. And Wikipedia would have about five articles.
Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle that states one should remove everything unnecessary to the story.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
First off, this applies to all things in your story, not just items. Second, there are still times when it’s okay to do this, for instance when the element is a red herring. But you should avoid baiting the reader too much or without cause. Don’t attempt to confuse the reader simply for the sake of being clever. Make it serve the story.
Symbolism in items is more problematic. Tolkien was famous for saying that the One Ring did not symbolize the nuclear bomb, but many people still believe that today. Sometimes we can subconsciously give meaning to elements in our story without even knowing it. You may not remember your father always drinking his scotch with water when he was happy and straight when he was mad. But your subconscious does and it makes your MC do it without you even realizing it. And then, at a critical moment, he’s drinking scotch straight and everything ends up okay and the spell is broken. There’s symbolism inherent in our working without us realizing it and there’s symbolism the reader brings with them. Don’t fight it, but learn to find it.
The best example I can think of in the use of an item is, you guessed it, Breaking Bad. From the first episode of season two to the series finale, ricin plays a significant role in Walt’s and Jesse’s predicaments. The first attempt to use it ax gains Tuco Salamanca, a psychotic drug dealer who has taken them hostage. But the plan is foiled by Tuco’s uncle, who is debilitated by a stroke. It’s not too significant here, just one more example of Walt using his chemistry knowledge for nefarious means.
But in seasons four and five, it is absolutely critical and provides a valuable lesson for writers. Walt again makes a small vial of ricin to again kill a psychotic drug dealer, this time named Gus Fring (I’m sure we can argue about whether he’s psychotic or not, but killing Victor the way he did counts for me). Walt makes the ricin and plans to use it himself, but when he realizes he can’t get close to Gus, he gives the vial to Jesse who hides it in one of his cigarettes. And that’s where things get interesting.
Jesse decides not to kill Gus so Walt needs a new plan. Jesse no longer trusts Walt so Walt needs to find a way to convince Jesse to help him. So he poisons Jesse’s girlfriend’s young son—though not with the ricin—and makes it look like Gus did it. When Gus is dead, Jesse learns that Brock was poisoned with berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley, which, unbeknownst to him, grow in Walt’s backyard.
And then the writers did something they would fight with for the next two seasons. When Walt gets the vial of ricin back, he doesn’t throw it away but hides it behind a wall plate in an electrical outlet in his bedroom. At this point, the ricin is Chekhov’s loaded gun, right on stage for everyone to see. The writers knew that at some point they would have to use the ricin. This couldn’t be a red herring, and it wasn’t.
When Jesse eventually realizes that Walt did steal the ricin and manipulate him into killing Gus while also almost killing a young boy, he finally turns on Walt. It was the last straw and Jesse’s betrayal sets the final five episodes in motion. But the ricin still isn’t been used. When the writers had Walt hide it, they knew they had to use it.
In fact, in the teaser for episode nine, they show Walt, in the future, going back to his abandoned home and retrieving the ricin. At this point, they admit they had no idea what they were going to do with it, which is amazing, but they felt they had to get it.
In the final episode, Walt is extracting revenge on everyone who has wronged him, and the ricin finally makes an appearance. Lydia, the super uptight executive that had been surreptitiously providing Gus with the precursor to make meth, always puts stevia in her chamomile tea. She also had a standing appointment with Walt at 10 on Tuesday in the same restaurant. Walt goes to the restaurant, knowing she’ll have her same routines and sit at the same table and switches out the stevia with ricin. As she puts in her tea, the camera closes in as the poison sinks to the bottom of the up and she stirs it in.
Now, this isn’t an amazing piece of writing that sets the whole series apart from every other but it is an example of the attention to detail that true fans of the show looked for and the writers felt deserving of a payoff. Isn’t that how you want your readers to feel about your writing?
In the podcast, Vince Gilligan talks a great deal about how the ricin played into the final episodes. It didn’t have to be a major plot point, though it does end up being one. But it does need a resolution. Some argue that there were many plot holes in the series. What happened to Huell? Or Ted? How did Walt know where to park in the compound when he’d never been there before? And how did that sliced pizza land on the roof in one piece?
And you’re going to have them as well. In fact, if you’re very lucky one day you’ll have a whole Reddit about mistakes in your oeuvre.