Raymond Chandler, famous author of detective noir fiction, said it best:
“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
I’ve always loved this bit of advice. Now it doesn’t have to turn every slow scene into a gun battle, but the idea is wonderful: when in doubt, tension. When in doubt, action. When in doubt, raise the stakes. The introduction of a “Chandler’s Gunman” puts a point on any scene. The air becomes thicker, the characters more desperate, and more importantly, it helps to clear away the bullshit.
Have two characters bogged down by indecision, personal conflict, or (worse) agreeing with each other? Add someone or something they have to deal with. Something they can’t ignore, something that unites them or divides them or just does something. Chandler’s Gunman can be a guy with a gun, or a fire, or a realization, or a death, or even just that piece of time-sensitive vital information that gets our lazy protagonists off their asses.
Chandler’s Gunman saved the manuscript I’m working on. Just this week, in fact.
I’ll admit an ugly truth – writer’s block exists. Now I’ll admit an even more uggo truth: it exists because writers think everything they wrote is awesome and etched in awesome stone. Unwillingness to adapt, to change, to ride out what the story is rather than what you thought it was going to be.
I had a safe place that slowed my characters down. I had a bunch of backup they could call to solve their problems, a fortress they could return to, a base camp. My story, in addition to growing long and boring (oh yeah), had ground to a halt.
I blew the fortress up. Fire, flames, death. I hideously murdered all of the friendly people there, introduced the nasty S.O.B. who did the chopping, and walked away from the wreckage laughing my author head off. In one fell swoop I’d saved my manuscript, introduced a villain, and pushed the story into its third act.
A man with a gun works wonders.