When In Doubt.

“When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Raymond Chandler. “The Simple Art of Murder.”

This nugget of tongue-in-cheek advice sometimes shows up in lists of quotations by famous writers, presumably as a solution to writer’s block or an intractable plot snarl. But its out of context. The full quote goes like this:

“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 over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.”

So Chandler wasn’t suggesting it at all. He was bemoaning the sort of crass, formulaic devices writers used as a substitute for real ingenuity, true invention, genuine creativity. Just throw a gun in the scene. Spill some blood. Have some babe start taking her clothes off.

Times haven’t changed very much.

But before this devolves into an indictment of popular taste and cheap sensationalism, I want to take a different look. Personally, I’ve always liked that bit of advice. Guns have yet to make an appearance in my books, but it works on so many other levels. When in doubt, do something big. Throw a monkey wrench into the works. Mess things up. Make it worse. (The fact that at no point in your carefully constructed outline do you mention anyone coming through a door brandishing a gun matters not in the least. Outlines are made to be ignored.) Who is this guy? Why has he got a gun? What does he want? Presumably, you’ll have to answer these questions in time, but meanwhile—holy crap! He’s got a gun!

So do something. Continue reading “When In Doubt.”