That gun there REALLY needs to go off....

Today was a wash, work-wise--the problem is that I am not a morning person, and I let my sleep schedule slide over so that I've been keeping what one of my friends used to call "vampire hours." This would be less of a problem if I wasn't expected to periodically get up at the crack of dawn to watch kids. As it is, I was so exhausted yesterday that I went overboard with the caffeine and the sugary foods and the beer after the kid left to try to wind down from it all (note to self: That worked when I was 19, didn't get hangovers, and had a stomach of iron. It does not work now), and today I am, if anything, even more exhausted.

So, I read a book. This book was billed as a novel of suspense, and indeed it was a novel of extremely pure suspense, because nothing actually happened. That was actually fine for the first 90-95% of the book--it was a really, really well-written novel of suspense. But to quote Anton Chekov, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." Especially, I should note, if your book is titled The Pistol and the whole damned book is about this evil, dangerous pistol lurking on the wall that is going to do something bad...something REALLY bad...something SUPER-DUPER bad...or maybe it won't. The End.

As a writer, I've fallen into this trap myself. Part of it is the feeling that, well, gee, the pistol always gets fired, so it's a little obvious, right? It may be obvious, but it's really unsatisfying when it doesn't happen and the reader is asked to pay all this attention to something that doesn't matter. Of course, the pistol doesn't literally have to be fired--but at the very least the pistol should come off the wall and get pointed at somebody. If you can come up with a satisfying twist, all the better--the pistol comes off the wall and is pointed at somebody, but just as the trigger is being pulled a cannonball is fired through the wall, obliterating the dude with the pistol. Or whatever. The point is, if you make a big deal about the pistol, there needs to be some drama happening with it. Otherwise, just cut it out and make your story that much more focused.

Keep in mind, too, that what is obvious to the writer is not necessarily obvious to the audience. In Joss Whedon's Serenity, there is a very suspenseful scene where soldiers are pointing guns at our heroes, ready to blow them all away. In the early versions of the movie, it just cuts from that scene to a scene where our heroes are fine, because Whedon figured it would be obvious to viewers that somebody intervened and told the soldiers to stand down. It was not, in fact, the least bit obvious, so another scene was added in which the soldiers were told to stand down. (And that, my friends, is why movies have previews and novels have beta readers.)

But honestly, I think the main reason people don't have the gun go off is simple fear--fear that, as a writer, you just don't have the chops to pull off a big climactic scene. Those kinds of scenes are hard to write, and they're intimidating, because they're usually really important, and if they go wrong, it's a disaster. Maybe you'll come up with one of those scenes that make people laugh and laugh because they're so dreadful! Maybe you'll come up with the latter-day equivalent of "It was a dark and stormy night," and people will name mock literary awards after you! Maybe you'll biff it so badly that George Lucas will want you to help him revise Star Wars again!

Ah, well--it's the writer's job to overcome those kinds of fears. To complicate matters, the intimidation factor can be hard to recognize--when I first wrote Trang, I tended to have the dramatic events take place "off-screen" where no one could see them. In fact, the more dramatic the event, the more likely it was that I had put it someplace where I didn't actually have to write about it. That was NOT in any way a conscious decision: When I because conscious of it, I was immediately struck by what a self-defeating pattern it was--why would someone ever read something where all the exciting bits have been carefully hidden away? But that's how the subconscious works, right? You're afraid that you might write something bad, so you write something that's guaranteed to be horrible!