Good morning, class.
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
“I’m stuck,” she told me.
Welcome to the wonderful world of writing, I almost said. Instead, I
gave her the advice offered by the master, Raymond
"When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand."
Now, since Chandler wrote mysteries featuring private eye Philip Marlowe (the most brilliant of which is The Long Goodbye),
I assume he was literally suggesting that you bring in a man with a
But Chandler was a smart guy and an incredible talent, so I have a
feeling he 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
I talk about this because I was recently entering Act II of a new book
and for a few days there, 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 like this:
- Bag of clothes
- Meeting of Brass
- Blackburn reassigned
Now, I know, none of those sound even remotely like a man with a gun
but, trust me, for the purposes of my story they were. Those 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 a bit 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
Some laugh at the Whammy Chart, calling it ridiculously formulaic, but I think it’s a pretty good idea.
In novels, you might want to have your beat, your plot point, your man with a gun happen every, oh, forty or fifty pages.
This is just a ballpark, of course. 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 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.
Raymond Chandler and Larry Gordon. Very smart guys.
Now the question for the writers in the crowd (and I believe there are more than a few). What do YOU do when you’re stuck? What’s your favorite man with a gun moment?