A Man With a Gun

by Robert Gregory Browne

I was talking to a friend recently who loves language, writes
poetry and short stories and wants very much to be a novelist. She has,
in fact, started a novel, but somewhere around the middle point she
ground to a halt.

“I’m stuck,” she told me.

Welcome to the wonderful world of writing, I almost said. Instead, I
gave her the advice that I’ve often heard attributed to Raymond
Chandler:

When you’re stuck, bring in a man with a gun.

Now, since Chandler wrote mysteries featuring private eye Philip Marlowe (the most brilliant of which is The Long Goodbye),
he was probably literally suggesting that you bring in a man with a
gun. But Chandler was a smart guy and an incredible talent, so I have a
feeling he also meant much more than that.

Your Man with a Gun doesn’t necessarily have to be armed
and dangerous. If we think figuratively, he can be anything, from a
plot point to a sudden change in weather. The point is to bring in some
new element — possibly from left field — something unexpected that gets
the story rolling again and, more importantly, gets your creative
juices flowing.

Several months ago, as I was working on my new book, I found I’d gotten stuck as well, and was desperately searching for my own Man
with a Gun. It took me awhile to remember a particular plot point that
I had thought up before I even started writing the book, but once I
did, the story once again blossomed and I was on the move.

The notes for my own Man with a Gun read something like this: 

  • Bag of clothes
  • Meeting of Brass
  • Blackburn reassigned
  • Carrots

Now, I know, none of these sound even remotely like a man with a gun
but, trust me, for the purposes of my story they were. These four things collectively created a plot point that propelled me forward,
probably for a good thirty pages or so.

THE WHAMMY CHART

In Hollywood, there’s a producer named Larry Gordon who supposedly
created (and I have no real verification of this) what’s known as a
Whammy Chart.

The idea of a Whammy Chart is that about every ten
minutes or so in an action movie, you need a Whammy event. Something
big happening that shifts the story and keeps the audience
interested. It could be an action beat, a sex beat, a relationship beat
— whatever. Just something that kicks up the stakes and keeps things
moving.

Some laugh at the Whammy Chart, calling it ridiculously formulaic — and they’re probably right.  But in terms of keeping things moving — at least in the plotting stages — I think it’s a pretty good idea.

Of course, in novels, those ten minutes would likely translate to forty or fifty pages, but you get the drift.  And we’re just talking ballpark.

Every novel, every story is
different, but I think it’s important to continually keep things
hopping, moving forward, progressing toward the hero’s goal. Give your
readers unexpected twists.

Or you may want to finally fulfill a
promise you’ve made in your earlier pages and give them an event
they’ve been anticipating or dreading, like the death of a character or
that first kiss in a budding relationship.

The real beauty of the Man with a Gun/Whammy Chart idea is that it helps
you keep from getting stuck. Even if you don’t specifically plot out
what those Whammy events are, when you do get stuck, you know it’s time for one.

It certainly works for me.

Raymond Chandler and Larry Gordon.  Very smart guys. 

But there are a lot of smart people here on Murderati, as well.  What do you do when you’re hopelessly stuck?

8 thoughts on “A Man With a Gun

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    “Some laugh at the Whammy Chart, calling it ridiculously formulaic — and they’re probably right. “

    The sonnet form could be considered formulaic, but a talented poet can do some amazing things within it.

    Reply
  2. Louise Ure

    When I’m hopelessly stuck I drink red wine.

    Seriously now, I have a short list of “idea starter” sentences. Like “There was one question he never wanted to hear.” Or “It was supposed to be simple.” Or “Something seemed different.”

    If I start a paragraph with one of those, it takes the plot off in a new direction and I’m going again. The original sentence rarely winds up in the final work, but at least it got me going.

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    I’m with Louise…

    Actually, what I do is reorganize my office. I walk away from the manuscript and let things percolate — straighten, throw away, label, file, shift books around, erase and rewrite my white board. I once was so horrifically stuck that I bought all new office furniture, desks and bookshelves and a cushy chair, to really shake things up.

    Now I can spend an afternoon writing out labels (I NEED a label maker) and it soothes me to the point where I can go back in.

    Storywise, the advice you give is stellar, Rob. I’ve been going slowly with my latest simply because it’s a single murder, and I’m used to dropping bodies like flies. I finally caved and killed someone, and suddenly the story is writing itself. And yes, my office is freakin’ pristine.

    Reply
  4. billie

    I don’t usually get stuck, not at the point where the man with the gun comes in, anyway.

    What happens is I write the man with the gun and then it feels too intense, melodramatic, scary, etc. so I dilute it way down and keep going.

    At the point where I get feedback, my readers say “I love this but what motivates this character X here on page Y… what’s at stake really? What if there was a man with a gun? And I say there WAS, exactly like that, but I thought it was too much and I took it out.

    Put it back, they say, and I do.

    Sigh. It’s my internal censor. Protect the character, protect the reader! Once I cut loose and let the man with the gun in to stay, it’s all so much better.

    Reply
  5. pari

    Most often, I bludgeon my way through it.

    Writing dialog at these times really helps because through the semi-stream of consciousness — one of my characters is bound to reveal an important fact or secret — then I can take off again in earnest.

    Reply
  6. Mantra Mali

    If a man comes to your front door and says he is conducting a survey And asks you to show him your bum, do not show him your bum. This is a scam. He only wants to see your bum. I wish I had got this yesterday. I feel so stupid and cheap. -The Bum http://www.widgetmate.com

    Reply

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