How to Write an Action or Thriller Novel

I want to write an action novel with a slight of thriller essence. Can someone give me an idea for a start?

This was a question request I got on Quora the other day, and the answer I started drafting really wanted to be a blog post. So here it is:  how to write an action novel that’s also a thriller.

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1.  Choose your main character.

Main characters in action/thriller novels are pretty stock. You can, of course, differentiate your novel from the rest of the genre by deviating cleverly from the stock elements, but for the sake of this tutorial, let’s stick with a recognizable action protagonist.

Main character: Bud Steelabs, age 36, ruggedly good-looking.

2.  Decide where the story ends. 

Most action/thriller novels and films end with the main character prevailing over the bad guys, so let’s go with that.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the bad guys.

Okay, but who are the bad guys? Terrorists? Let’s go with terrorists.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the terrorists.

Once you know where the novel ends, you have a pretty good idea where it begins. Its start should be more or less the opposite of its end.

The story starts when Bud Steelabs learns that the terrorists are ____.

The terrorists are probably terrorizing someone in some place. Since most thriller plots are plausible enough to happen in the real world, it’s important to do enough research to understand the place in the world the primary action of the plot takes place, who is likely to be involved, and so on.

But what the terrorists are up to isn’t actually the most important part of the plot. How Bud Steelabs stops them isn’t the most important part, either. More important than either of these is question number 3:

3.  Decide where the main character ends.

Sure, Bud Steelabs stops the terrorists. But who is Bud Steelabs when he does this – and how is the Bud Steelabs at the end of the book different from the Bud Steelabs at the beginning?

Good novels differ from forgettable novels in one key way: in good novels, the main character, not the external events, is the one who undergoes the biggest change. This is even true of action stories and thrillers.

In order to decide how Bud Steelabs changes, ask yourself: Why is Bud Steelabs going after the terrorists in the first place? Sure, it’s his job, but no one is required to be the main character of an action novel; Bud could just as easily decide to retire and take a weekend job at Home Depot. Why does stopping these terrorists matter to Bud?

Maybe the terrorists have kidnapped his wife and child. (See: several Liam Neeson films.)

Maybe Bud is getting a little long in the tooth and needs to prove he’s still relevant in a rapidly-changing world. (See: Skyfall.)

Maybe the terrorists are his wife and child, or his best friend. (See: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Bud needs a personal reason to go after the terrorists. A reason that’s going to gnaw at him. A reason that will trip him up a bunch of times, but that also keeps driving him forward.

Once you know what kind of person Bud Steelabs will be once he ends the plot….

4. Decide where the main character begins.

Do not start the book with a recount of The Glorious Birth of Bud Steelabs. Do not. No one cares how Bud Steelabs got born.

Instead, start with where Bud Steelabs is internally; the thing that’s going to change for him over the course of the story. If Bud Steelabs is feeling a little old and irrelevant, the story might start with him failing a physical, or failing to catch a pickpocket. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his best friend is a terrorist, the story might start with a co-worker chiding Bud about how all he does is work and he has no real friends. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the story might start with Bud missing a soccer game in which she scored the winning goal.

This is where the story starts: by setting up the main character for an important change in a way that also introduces the stakes of his inevitable fight with the terrorists.

5.  Then other stuff happens.

Generally speaking, every story gets worse before it gets better, and The Saga of Bud Steelabs is no exception.

One good rule of thumb for action and thriller-type plots is to introduce two problems for every one problem the protagonist solves. Eventually the main character will need to start wrapping these problems up, but for about 4/5 of the book, make things continually harder for him.

Jam his gun. Make him run out of ammo. Give him a serious, mobility-limiting injury. Kidnap more children. Hire more terrorists. Just generally make his life suck more and more. (Die Hard does an excellent job of this.)

Finally:

6. Make the action the least important part of the plot.

But wait! It’s an action story, right? Shouldn’t there be action?

Yes, there should. There should be action. There should be plenty of action.

But the action is actually the least important part of writing an action novel. The most important part, from the writer’s perspective, is to make the audience care about the main character.

Give readers a reason to root for the main character – not for just any generic “good guy” who might stop the “bad guys,” but for Bud Steelabs specifically. Why should we want Bud to succeed – so he can be reunited with his adorable daughter, save his best friend, prove his relevance, learn the meaning of Christmas?

A main character we care about is the difference between a good novel and a mediocre one. Bud Steelabs wouldn’t write a mediocre novel, and neither should you.


Like this post? Buy me a coffee. It’s what Bud Steelabs would do.

 

 

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Posted in Uncategorized

Why We Need Better Representation in Publishing

I recently gave an interview to Alaina Leary at Bustle on the topic of disability representation within the publishing industry. Alaina’s final published piece is well worth a read. Check it out!

My full responses to the questions Alaina sent are below the fold.

Continue reading

Posted in writing

Good Characters: Who Are They?

Everyone who reads (or watches films) can remember characters that stuck with them: characters we loved, characters we were in love with, characters we wanted to be, characters who terrified us. But what makes them memorable? What makes them good?

“Good” characters are, above all, realistic – but what’s “realistic” in fiction usually departs in significant ways from the “reality” of everyday life. Here’s how to get better characters.

1. Good characters want something.

The first thing to ask, when you’re developing any character, isn’t their age, sex, eye color, or choice of wardrobe. It’s what they want.

Not “want” as in “man, I could really go for a soda right now,” but “want” as in the thing that is driving them through the story – the one thing they want, right now, more than anything else.

Depending on the size and scope of your story, that thing might be very large (save the world), or it might be very small (no, really, give me a soda). Whatever the thing is, the plot must involve that person moving towards that thing, and being thwarted repeatedly. Ultimately, they’ll either get the thing or not get it.

The ancient Greeks, in fact, divided all their drama along these lines. If the characters got what they wanted, the story was a comedy. If not, it was a tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays can be sorted the same way. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are both full of teenage lovers and raunchy jokes. What makes the first one a comedy and the second a tragedy? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers end up married – and in Romeo and Juliet, they end up dead.

Very large stories often have characters who want more than one thing in progression, or  who want more than one thing at the same time (Harry Potter wants to stop Voldemort, but/and he also wants to have a family). Some small stories do too. When characters want more than one thing, point #2 comes in.

2. Good characters are their own worst enemies.

Think back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry deals with any number of challenges and foes, including the Dursleys, Snape, Malfoy, Peeves, disposing of Norbert, troll in the dungeons, Devil’s Snare, flying keys, Quidditch matches, exams, staircases that go somewhere else on a Tuesday, and, ultimately, Voldemort. With a little help from his friends, Harry deals with all of these on his own.

Except one. There’s one obstacle in the entire book/film that someone else actually has to take out of his path. One obstacle that threatens to derail Harry completely, and against which Harry himself is powerless. Remember what it is?

It’s the Mirror of Erised.

Harry doesn’t stop vising the mirror of his own free will.  Dumbledore has it moved someplace Harry can’t get to it in the ordinary course of his life at Hogwarts. In fact, we’re given to understand that if the mirror had stayed where it was, Harry would have gone on visiting it. And, if he had, he might well have become so distracted that he failed to stop Voldemort entirely. The mirror, remember, shows Harry that other thing he wants most in the world: his family.

Sure, Voldemort’s a scary evil freaky half-alive dude. But he’s not actually the threat Harry can’t deal with on his own. The bigger threat to Harry Potter is Harry Potter – or rather, it’s the moment Harry’s two most important, crucial desires collide with one another.

A good plot needs both a good protagonist and a good antagonist. But a great plot needs characters whose desires are capable not only of tripping them up, but of tearing them apart.

3. Good characters aren’t particularly self-aware.

Writers, don’t let your characters grow up to understand why they do things.

You need to understand why characters do things. An effective plot, and effective characterization, requires you to understand not only what your characters are doing, seeing, and thinking, but also what they’re missing. And when you know a character has the information they need to solve the puzzle, it’s your job to make sure they don’t solve it until the right moment.

In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling does this primarily by not giving her characters the final piece until the last moment. But there are other ways to do it too. I like to distract mine: about two logical thought-steps away from a character realizing exactly what’s going on and how to stop it, I set something on fire, start a fight, or make the caffeine wear off so they decide to go to bed instead of thinking anymore.

Good writers are incredibly aware, not only of their characters, but of themselves. They’re constantly questioning why they react in certain ways and why other people react differently to the same situations. But good characters are horribly unaware. It’s what keeps the plot moving.

4. Good characters aren’t all that good.

About halfway through reading the draft of my first novel, my editor remarked that she’d begun reading with the assumption that I’d based one of my main characters on my husband, but that she’d had to revise that opinion. I replied, “Yeah, my husband is too comfortable with himself to be a good fiction character.”

She said, “Your husband is too good to be a good fiction character.”

The best people you know are probably horrible characters. The best characters you know are probably not very good people, when it comes down to it, even if they manage to do very good things.

The essential matter of all good fiction is conflict. Conflict between people (Harry vs. Voldemort, Kirk vs. Khan), conflict between a person and their environment or circumstances (Harry vs. the Dursleys, the Enterprise crew vs. every weird anomaly space has to offer), conflict between two of a person’s needs or desires (Harry’s desire to defeat Voldemort vs. his desire to belong, Kirk’s desire to save the woman he loves vs. saving the Enterprise from never having existed at all).

Conflict is messy. Conflict is mean. Conflict forces us to choose a side or an action, and in making that choice, we’re forced to face all available options – even those we’d rather not admit we thought of. When the conflict is in the way of a goal the character wants desperately to achieve, they may consider (or take) desperate measures to get it.

Incidentally, some of the best recent works in film and literature have dealt head-on with this point by looking at what happens to characters after they’re done being the “good guy” and have to deal with the fact that the “good guy” had to do some pretty bad stuff to beat the “bad guy.” The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is obsessed with this question, as were the Hunger Games novels. (Firefly went one step further by asking what happens when the good guys don’t even win.)

Tl;dr – Good characters are messy little balls of want. They want lots of things. Not all those things are compatible. On top of this, the world around them thwarts their wants at (nearly) every opportunity. They’re willing to contemplate, and even to do, some pretty un-noble things in order to resolve the tangled mess they find themselves in. And then they have to live with themselves.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing

What Freelancing Taught Me About Fiction Writing (and Vice Versa)

If you’ve been reading my writing advice, you may wonder: why is my “writing advice” section a mishmash of notes on “creative” writing (fiction, poetry, etc.) and notes on “commercial” writing (copy)?

Here’s why:

It’s all the same thing.

When people ask what I do for a living, and I tell them I’m a “writer,” the next natural question is “What do you write?”

It does not matter what answer I give to this question. It doesn’t matter if I talk about the newsletters and books I ghostwrite for professional clients, or if I mention that I’m working on yet another novel. No one is ever impressed by the answer to this question.

There are a lot of reasons for that. No one really understands what writers do all day, for one thing. No one really thinks of written communications as work, as labor requiring effort to produce, much less as skilled work (yet watch many of these people struggle to send a single email). And even fewer people realize that there is no material difference between writing a novel and writing a guide to breast augmentation (to cite just the last two book-length works I, personally, have produced).

But there really is no difference. Here’s how writing web copy made me a better novelist (and vice versa):

1. I understand why audience matters.

Who are you writing to, what do they already know, what do you want them to get out of reading your words, and what do they want to get out of reading your words?

I’ve tried teaching this to college freshmen in various genres: creative nonfiction, letters to the editor, research essays, and so on. I’ve also written marketing and ad copy for the better part of a decade. And the second one taught me how to understand and manipulate an audience better than anything ever has. If I could put every one of my students through it, I would.

By the time I sat down to write a novel, understanding my audience’s perspective was easy. So was sitting on information until exactly the moment I wanted them to have it – exactly the moment that would get me the reaction I was going for. I’d been doing it with web copy, email campaigns, and advertisements for years.

2. I’m in the habit of writing 10,000 words a day, no matter what.

When I started writing for money, I was making one to three cents a word.  I also had no other job or job prospects. It was 2009, and I was bedridden. To make enough money to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table, I had to write a lot, and I had to write fast.

I had to develop the habit of banging words onto the page, along with the skill to do it right the first time. Every second I spent proofreading or editing was a second that turned my penny a word into a fraction of a penny a word – and yet I couldn’t turn in error-riddled work, or I’d be making nothing at all.

For years, I have been writing five to ten thousand words a day for pay. Some days, I wrote considerably more. Rarely do I do less than five thousand. And that’s before I write for Patreon, or write poetry, or work on my novel. That’s before emails, before text messages or Facebook updates or tweets that only I think are funny. Five to ten thousand words a day, every day. For eight years.

By the time I sat down to start my first novel, a year ago, writing was relatively easy. I don’t bang out five to ten thousand words a day on the novel, unless I’m having a particularly good day and/or am deep in Act Three (which is where the “ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES” instinct kicks in). But I can sit down and do some writing on it, every day. And that is, of course, the only way 70,000 words get put on paper – one word at a time.

3. I have learned not to care what people think of my work, or what happens to it once I click “Send.”

Writing five to ten thousand words of throwaway copy that didn’t even have my name on it every day for years taught me something else, too. It taught me to not to get attached to my words.

A lot of aspiring writers get bogged down here. They feel like they must produce the next Great American Novel, or that no one will ever truly understand their genius. Years ago, on a dating site, I got a message from a guy who tried to “connect” with me as a “fellow writer,” only to admit that his work “never sees the light of day” because “either I feel that I am not expressing myself and my ideas adequately, or no one except my friends will ever understand it.”

In other words, dude is so attached to his own work he can’t have confidence in it.

I get stuck here too, sometimes. The hardest point in any novel draft for me is the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. I’ve set up my characters, I’ve given them a problem to solve, and I’ve got them poised right on the edge of the abyss…and what comes crawling out of that abyss is my own boiling insecurity. “What is this crap? This is boring. Nobody is going to want to read this.”

The exact same thing could be said of the 5600 words on Texas professional license revocation that I wrote this morning.

Writing copy makes it easier to ignore the voice of the abyss. It makes it easier not to confuse my writing with my own identity. Which, in turn, makes it easier to keep going, even when I’m convinced no one will ever want to read this crap. And lo and behold, people want to read this crap.

Once in a while, I’ll be writing in a coffee shop and get approached by an art-student type who wants to know if I’m a writer and what I’m writing. Art Student Type then smugly informs me that he (it’s always a he) is writing a screenplay (it’s always a screenplay).

I’ll say, “that’s nice.” And go back to banging out five thousand words on the latest commercial trucking regulations.

I’ve stopped being pretentious about writing. Although I enjoy writing fiction more than I enjoy writing copy, I don’t think the former is inherently better, or has any more cachet, than the latter. Or vice versa. They inform one another; both of them have made me better at the other one. I wouldn’t be a novelist if I hadn’t written copy for years; I wouldn’t be able to make $700 in two hours writing copy if I hadn’t grasped the perseverance and narrative vision it takes to finish a novel. It’s all worthwhile.

Posted in writing

How to (Almost But Not Quite) Write a Successful Query Letter

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The F stands for eFFort. (Image: a capital letter “F” in a circle, written in red ink on a piece of notebook paper.)

As an established blogger in a relatively niche community, I get the occasional query email from folks who are looking for platforms to publish their writing. Occasionally, these are targeted, thoughtful, and demonstrate that the writer actually read my blog.

Most of the time, however, they’re…not.

I got one this morning. In many ways, it’s a good, solid query letter – but it’s got one fatal flaw. The letter (with identifying details redacted) reads as follows:

Hi,

As a homeschooling mom to a child on the autism spectrum, I found your site to be very educational, helpful, and interesting. I noticed that you have a newsletter, and I wondered if you’re open to taking guest submissions for it. If so, I’d love to write something for your subscribers.

You can find samples of my writing on my site, [Web URL]. I can write on a number of topics, including offering engaging lesson plans and activities that work well for children with special needs, advice for parents as their child with special needs starts school for the first time, advice for parents of teens with special needs (especially those on the autism spectrum), tips for parents on educating their community on their child’s needs and how to serve them best, and more.

If you’re open to receiving an outside submission, please let me know, and please send along any guidelines you have. For example, I always like to include helpful resources in my writing and would just want to make sure that’s ok.

Hope to hear from you soon, but if I don’t, I look forward to learning more from your awesome website.

Thank you,
[PROSPECTIVE WRITER]

First, let’s talk about what’s right with this letter.

1.  It’s clear, consistent, and legible. Surprisingly, many “writers” querying publications – including my blog and the press at which I work – don’t get this far. This query is expressed in standardized, written English that makes its purpose and the connection between its ideas clear. I completely believe this writer has had some success in the business, and that this writer’s work would be read and enjoyed by others.

2. It’s reasonably targeted. I write a blog about being autistic and about the autistic community. The query is from a parent who wants to write about autism-related topics from that perspective. This writer has clearly done enough homework to notice that our interests in a particular subject area overlap (and maybe even enough homework to notice that advice by/for/from/to parents is an area I don’t cover much).

3. It contains a clear call to action. Specifically, “please let me know, and please send along any guidelines….” This writer doesn’t wait for me to guess how to accept this query. Instead, the query itself tells me exactly what to do.

In most cases, if you can hit these three points in a query letter, you can land a writing gig. Queries don’t have to be long. In fact, they shouldn’t be; they should be short, straight, and to the point.  The elements of a good query letter are all here: Polite greeting. Who is this writer? What can they do for the publication? What should I do in order to start that process? Polite closing.

Nevertheless, this one’s getting rejected. Here’s why:

1. I don’t have a newsletter. “On the autism spectrum” in the first sentence grated on me a bit (more on that below), but the fatal blow was the start of the second sentence. “I noticed you have a newsletter….” No, I don’t. This writer is asking to write for a publication that literally does not exist – and, in so doing, clearly demonstrated that they sent me a form letter instead of actually reading my blog.

This mistake alone was enough to get the query rejected, but the following two things are also wrong with this letter.

2. Pathologizing and weasel language. One of the main focuses of my blogging is the use of language surrounding autism. In particular, my blog champions the use of “autistic” to describe people and “Autistic” to describe the community and culture those people are developing. “On the autism spectrum,” while considered very polite in general discourse, gets the side-eye when it comes from anyone who has claimed to be reading my (“awesome”) blog.

See also: “special needs.” My blog also takes a pro-neurodiversity approach to language, which means that I strongly prefer not to describe autistic people’s needs as “special.” This, too, is something that would be very obvious to anyone who read my work.

Having to explain these to a writer, especially when that writer has already claimed to be reading my work, takes more effort than it’s worth. The pro-neurodiversity blogosphere is full of fantastic writers, some of whom I have hosted as guest bloggers before, and some of whom I’m sure I will host in the future. Why should I waste my time explaining things these writers already know?

Besides, I don’t have a newsletter.

The form of this query letter is great. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances where 90 percent won’t cut it, because the missing 10 percent is the part that really matters: the part where the writer demonstrates they actually understand what the publication is about. This writer is not a good fit for my blog (or my non-existent newsletter).

“Not a good fit” is, of course, the stock rejection reason throughout the publishing industry. Usually, it means one of two things: either (1) the publisher has decided that the amount of work they’ll have to do to edit or remediate the submitted piece is simply not worth it, or (2) the submitted piece is not going to resonate with the audience they’ve built.

“Not a good fit” feels subjective and opaque, and thus unfair. But it’s avoidable. It’s avoidable by making sure you actually understand the publication’s goals and core audience before sending a query.

Remember, every publisher, no matter their size, is reading your query letter with one question in mind: “What’s in this for us?” The answer they want to see is “I can write you a thing you can easily publish that your readers will like and pay for.” Make sure you provide that answer (though, as always, show rather than tell).

Posted in writing

PUNCH THE SUN!: Maximizing Your Future Today

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Image: silhouette of a colorguard performer with flag, PUNCHING THE SUN.

This morning, I taught seven eighth-graders–none of whom had ever touched a flag before–how to drop spin.

As everyone in the colorguard world knows (and everyone else can deduce from seeing it done), drop spinning isn’t a World-class skill. In fact, it’s a fundamental. It’s darn near the first thing everyone learns to do with a flag. In the world of colorguard, drop spins aren’t so much PUNCHING THE SUN as they are TAKING A BREATH: you’re gonna do thousands of them just as a basic function.

These kids have a week to go from “never touched a flag before” to “can compete with the veterans in the high school guard” for six open slots on that team.  So why did I start with drop spins?

Simple: It was the ONE element I could teach today that would have the biggest impact on their performance one week from today.

Colorguard instructors put a lot of emphasis on the drop spin because it teaches a lot of fundamentals at once: pacing, hand and arm placement, muscle isolation, and (when done marching or while marking time) hand/eye/foot coordination and rhythm.  It also looks good when it’s together, which is why so many parade routines are centered on it.

Granted: I wrote their parade/tryout routine, so I know that it’s chock-full of drop spins. I’m also choreographing the fall show, so I know they’re going to need the skills drop spins teach.

I’m also not interested in wasting time.

Between coaching colorguard, taking on freelance projects for clients, editing several books a year for Autonomous Press (the first of my 2017 batch, Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamberis out now), writing a novel a year, and spending time with my awesome family, I don’t have a lot of procrastination time. And I don’t get any more time than everyone else gets (believe it or not, I also eat three meals a day, exercise daily, and sleep eight hours a night).

What I’ve learned to do is to use the time I have more efficiently, by asking this one question: What can I do RIGHT NOW that will get me closest to X goal?

“X” is always the goal in question, whether that’s increasing my freelance income, getting a bunch of newbies spinning together, tapping my creativity or expanding my readership. This morning, that was skipping basics like the 27 points in favor of teaching my new colorguard candidates how to drop spin. This afternoon, it’s going to be sitting down and writing a thousand words.

(For authors, “what can I do now that will get me closest to my goal?” is almost always “SIT DOWN AND WRITE.” The fact that “sit down and write” is also the hardest thing we do is not a coincidence.)

For solid long-term growth, start by setting your five-year goal. Write it in present tense: “I make $50,000 per year in book royalties.” “I have an agreement to turn my novel into a film.” “I am the director of a Scholastic Open-class guard that just placed in the top five at Dayton.” Whatever your goal is.

Write it on a Post-It note. Stick it above your desk. Or on your dashboard. Or on your treadmill. Someplace you’re going to see it every day.

When you have to decide how to spend your time–what project to do next, whether to say “yes” to an offer, and so on–ask, “Is this the one thing I can do today that will get me closest to my goal?” If so, get on it.

Ask yourself:

  • “If I could do only one thing today that would get me closer to my goal, would this be it?”
  • “If I can only spend 30 minutes today on my goal, what will get me closest to that goal in that short amount of time?”
  • “If I doubled my goal (make $100,000, turn two novels into films, direct a World class guard, etc.), what one thing today would get me closest to that goal?”

There’s a place in life for Netflix and chill–but to reach your goals, make sure it’s after you’ve done that One Thing.

Posted in the creative process

Chekov’s Bear Arms, Or “Does the Gun Have to Go Off in Act Three?”

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If you’re going to show the audience a friendly monster in Act One, he had better have an adorable temper tantrum in Act Two. (Image: Fizzgig the Muppet from The Dark Crystal, a brown ball of fur with his mouth open, showing multiple rows of very sharp teeth. The background is full of “AAAAAAA”, representing his screaming.)

Author Anton Chekhov gave variations on the following writing advice several times during his life:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This morning, I had a conversation with several other people about putting this into practice. A writer friend (and one of the luminous poetry authors in Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber) is writing a fiction piece in which a gun appears on a mantlepiece in Act One. The author wanted to know: does it have to go off in Act Three?

The answer: Yes and no.

Chekhov’s advice isn’t literally about firing guns. It’s about making sure you don’t make the audience look at anything without explaining, at some point, why you made them look at it.

With a gun, the easiest way to explain why you made the audience look at the gun in Act One is to shoot somebody later in the plot. But it’s not the only thing you can do with a gun.

Take, for example, my upcoming novel. One of the two POV characters carries not one gun, but two – everywhere. He’s always got a sidearm and a smaller weapon jammed into his boot.

In the novel, the reader sees both of these guns in the very first chapter. Neither one is fired, though. Instead, the fact the guns were drawn but not fired (a) says something about the character’s personality (he’s kind of paranoid), (b) says something about the circumstances of his job (he probably should be), and (c) foreshadows several interactions that take place later in the book.

In Act Two, we see this character’s guns again, briefly – when he’s frisked for them. Here, more character-building is taking place. Losing his weapons makes the character feel more vulnerable, right at the very point of the plot in which he feels it is most important that he not be vulnerable.

Finally, in Act Three, the character fires a gun. Ironically, it’s not one of the two guns he was toting around in the previous acts! He’s lost both of those–turns out he was wrong about which part of the plot he would most need to not be vulnerable at. But the appearance of the guns in Act One and the loss of them temporarily in Act Two have both led up to this moment. We saw the guns; we saw them disappear; now we see a gun (but not those guns) fired.

Firing the gun is just one way to explain to the audience why you made them look at the gun in previous acts, though. It’s by far the easiest, but there are plenty of other options, depending on your plot. Maybe the gun is a family antique that was stolen and finally returned to its owner (or used for another nefarious purpose). Maybe the gun jams at a crucial moment. Maybe someone gets pistol-whipped instead of shot. And so on.

Oh, and when you first introduce the gun in Act One? Make it do double duty. Don’t just say “and by the way, this dude has a gun.” For example, in my friend’s “gun on the mantlepiece” scenario, the author might reveal the presence of the gun on the mantlepiece by mentioning it as a detail the protagonist notices while they are hanging out in the room, waiting for the antagonist to show up. The protagonist might draw certain conclusions about the antagonist from the presence of the gun. These conclusions might or might not be correct (I use “not correct” a lot in my work).

Then, the gun drops out of the plotline. When it resurfaces, it should do so in a way that reveals whether or not the protagonist’s conclusions in Act One were correct, in addition to doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing in Act Three (killing someone, jamming so that the shooter is now in even more peril, whatever).

That’s a lot of work for one gun. In good fiction, though, everything does a lot of work. The kind of novels people read over and over, the kind they recommend to their friends, are the ones in which readers notice something new every time they read–because everything in the book is doing double or triple duty.

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