Known for incredibly concise storytelling, Anton Chekhov leaves no detail unresolved in his stories. Everything serves a purpose. The principle has been titled Chekhov’s Gun: if you introduce a gun, the audience expects it to be fired at some point. These details—these promises—build and interweave, and by the end of the story, every promise has reached a payoff that serves the ending. Mind you, these payoffs are rarely happily-ever-afters or neat, little bows wrapping up the story. They often include tragedy and death, but that doesn’t make them any less satisfying.

In Sleepy, a story written in one day, Chekhov introduces a baby, a 13-year-old girl working as a servant, and a horrible family that fuels the young girl’s ongoing suffering. With a payoff of the servant killing the baby, the story resolves as the reader expects. Writing this masterful story in one day is already an incredible feat, but the more impressive feat is how Chekhov wove a secondary set of promises into the plot, all centered around a lamp, a pair of trousers, and a cricket.

In the introduction, Chekhov introduces a lamp emitting green light, a pair of trousers on a clothesline, and a cricket in the stove. At first glance, these items only exist to enhance the setting, but he brings them up again and again and again. As I was doing my first reading, the purpose of these three items seemed quite unclear. No one wears the pants. No one puts out the lamp. No one complains about the cricket. They just sit there, doing nothing.

The young girl, Varka, enters a few dreams throughout the short story, and each time she does, she first looks at the green light on the wall and the shadows. The flickering light and moving shadows and chirping cricket appear more and more hypnotic until eventually, the light and shadows wink at her. Chekhov builds on the personification until the end of the story. The three items laugh, and she laughs with them as she kills the baby.

In the span of six pages, Chekhov created an entirely new character out of thin air and gave it a personality. This tricky, evil spirit laughing and dancing on the wall is made of no more than some green light, the shadow of a pair of trousers, and the chirp of a cricket. Its development represents Varka’s descent into madness, an integral component of the story. Chekhov promised to do something with these three items, and he overdelivered on the payoff. Without it, we wouldn’t see Varka lose her mind, just her frustration.

Creating payoff is about more than finally using the promise. It’s about giving it a broader significance—a life of its own—in the story, one that serves the ending. Once you have that, the payoff can reflect its symbolism, even if you use the promise in an unconventional way. Just because you’ve introduced Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t mean you need to fire it.