(Yes, I know it’s been quiet for a while. Apologies. I was in a field pretending to be a fairy politician. You heard me.)
This is the final bit of advice from James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. I’ll be honest – the book has been tough to get through at times. He provides examples for everything, which is both helpful and increasingly irritating. The examples take up at least two thirds of the content. Nonetheless, there are good points and tips hidden amongst them and this is one.
The ‘guy with a gun‘ technique is designed to energise your plot and/or help break through a bit of writer’s block. It’s derived from the late great Raymond Chandler, detective writer extraordinaire, and is very simple. If the story ever bogged down, he’d send a guy with a gun into the scene. It gave all the characters something to react to, introduced both action and conflict, and surprised the audience. Sometimes it surprised him, which is where breaking through writer’s block comes in. The guy with a gun is standing there, threatening your characters. Why? Where did he come from and what does he want? Better get your thinking cap on.
Obviously it doesn’t have to literally be a guy with a gun. It can be anything surprising – a fire alarm going off, a stampeding elephant, a flash flood, etc etc. The point is that you’re forcing yourself as a writer to think about the story afresh. You’re also giving the audience something unexpected, making them sit up in their seats and revitalising their attention. This is the ‘unanticipated‘ bit. Because we’ve had centuries (or millenia, if you’re counting cave paintings) of telling stories, it’s dangerously easy to follow the same old paths and clichés. First generation ideas, so to speak. Trouble is, the audiences grow ever more savvy and they can anticipate those tried-and-tested-twists. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that anticipation is a good thing, a sense of the familiar and comprehensible. It risks losing their attention, though – if they think they know how things are going to go, why should they bother carrying on reading? You need to shock them out of that comfort zone from time to time, in order to keep them invested in your story.
How do you achieve this? I’ve already talked about one technique a bit – going through different perspectives to get a new take on a scene. The alternative approach to that is one perspective, many scenes. In other words, make a list of all the possible consequences or next events that could ensue from the beginning of your scene. The initial few will be first generation ideas. Push through those to what seems like the really wacky stuff. Come up with something that your audience is highly unlikely to anticipate. Killing characters without warning is quite a popular approach amongst some authors (George R R Martin, I’m looking at you again), but personally I think that still falls within the remit of first generation ideas. It can totally be the right move in the right scene but it’s within the boundaries of expectation.
The example Scott Bell gives is a husband coming home early to find his wife having an affair with his best friend. Fairly standard, right? There’s a wealth of possible reactions the husband can use: shouting, attacking, leaving, etc. What if he doesn’t say anything, but jumps out of the window? What if he ignores them and goes to have a shower? What if he starts painting the room? None of these are usual reactions, so you have both the other characters and the audience wondering what the hell’s going on. That gives you plot AND reader hooks. Bingo.
Again, I’ve already talked a bit about this technique for endings, but it works at any point in the story. Try getting into the habit of thinking about it for all major plot twists. You don’t want to overuse curve balls, otherwise the audience will feel permanently off-balance and uncomfortable, but a bit of unanticipation at the right points will keep them hooked.