A Man with a Gun

There’s an old bit of advice given to writers of crime stories on how to move the action forward. It was given by Raymond Chandler in an essay called The Simple Art of Murder in a magazine called the Saturday Review of Literature, published in April 1950.

In the essay, he laments that while his stories may lack realism due to the compressed way that they show events, with only a limited group of characters, that:

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.

I remembered this advice, as I contemplated how to proceed with my second novel Who Kills A Nudist? I was at the midway point, with the murder at the core of my story and various subplots involving drug smuggling, illegal weapons importation and people trafficking adding murkiness to the villainy. My detectives are surveilling the suspect’s mansion from a boat on the river running beside his estate—their position means they can see things well, but not easily intercede.

Their suspicions about the main baddy being involved with bringing in guns from Europe are proved when his henchman starts playing with an automatic pistol while drunk. He’s apparently suicidal, placing the muzzle in his mouth, but they are reduced to being spectators owing to their precarious location. This scene provided my tale with tension, as well as unexpected comedy, and helped me decide the direction of the next few chapters.

The ‘gun in his hand’ needn’t be taken literally, for any unexpected event can move a story on. Often, we write such perfect worlds, with characters who don’t stumble over their words imparting just what needs to be said, and the action unfolding seamlessly. But accidents do happen, and people lose their tempers unpredictably.

Why not throw a spanner in the works and see what happens?

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