A Man With a Gun

by Robert Gregory Browne

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
halt.

“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
Chandler:

"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
gun.

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
juices flowing.

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
  • Carrots

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
moving.

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?

11 thoughts on “A Man With a Gun

  1. JDRhoades

    Whenever I’m stuck, I try to remember: what is each character’s goal? And what, considering their particular personality and skill set, would they do next to achieve that? Chances are, someone in the book–protagonists, antagonist, supporting characters– has something they can do next to get what they want. And since what they do affects what everyone else does, once one character makes their move, you’re back in business, story wise.

    Reply
  2. Julia Spencer-Fleming

    Grand Master Lawrence Block, who famously said, “Fiction is just one damned thing after another,” calls it “the bear in the canoe.” I tell my writing students you don’t need to know what’s going to happen after you, say, send a Sikh with a gun into the bookshop. All you need to do is complicate your hero’s life and see what happens from there. You can always go back to an earlier version of the draft…but don’t think I’ve ever known a writer who has. Somehow, the bear in the canoe always winds up paddling the story into a better place.

    My own man-with-a-gun moment came while writing my third book. Things seemed a little too smooth and easy for my protagonists. So I broke my hero’s leg. Put him on crutches for the rest of the book. I had no idea how it would play out when I pushed him over into a woodchuck hole, but it lead to all sorts of complications and revelations.

    Reply
  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    “Fiction is just one damned thing after another.” I love that. It pretty much sums up the way I write. I was sitting here staring at my computer screen this morning, trying to figure out a new book, and said to my wife, “I have no idea where I’m going with this thing.”

    She said, “You’ll figure it out” and she’s right. I always do. But I badly need a man with a gun right now — or a bear, a canoe and some rampaging rapids — because I’m losing focus fast.

    Just another day in Robland.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    My version of The Man With A Gun is “what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character right now?” And worst doesn’t always have to be death or despair. It could be a flat tire, a wrong turn or a misunderstanding. Although I was very pleased to blow somebody up with a car bomb one time when things got too quiet.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Blackmoore

    For me it depends on how far in I am. I like to look back on what I,’ve written and see if there’s something I’ve already set up. Usually I’ve got something I’ve already put in place without realizing it that I can use later. Like mentioning a gun in act 1 and forgetting it was there until I need it.

    Reply
  6. Tom Barclay

    In a current WIP, I have been visited by an insane Russian emigre street dancer, aged sixty – and I’m talking genuine psychosis, here. He sees things that aren’t there . . . except they are. And the protag believes him.

    Believe it or not, this solves a serious problem of action and motivation for me.

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    I have a tendency to kill people when I get stuck. If I’m just plodding along, so is the reader, so some sort of action has to happen. Nice blog, professor.

    Reply
  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Rob,Great question. I’m in the middle of a deadline for the end of the week and can’t come up quickly with a written example . . . but the movie DEAD AGAIN was filled with these marvelous twists.

    Reply
  9. Catherine

    I’m moving between dithering and plugging away at an end of term essay…(obviously not too productively as I’m reading blogs) I’d love to be able to kill someone off to create a bit more ‘flow’ or even ‘pace’ when I get stuck. At this point I’d pay money if I could introduce any aged insane Russian emigre street dancer to make a discussion of the key functions of Australia’s media slightly interesting.

    So glad there is fiction in the world.

    Reply

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