A Man with a Gun

Sometimes all your work needs is a man with a gun.

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Not too long ago, whilst attending a writers’ support group, I was asked what inspires me to write. At the time, I’d explained that one of my favourite ways of getting little nuggets of plot was to do thought experiments.

For example, my current work-in-progress has a large portion of world-building based on the realisation that a lot of my main characters are vegetarian or vegan. I don’t know why. I am not. They’ve each had different reasons for this: culture, ethics, health, or past bad experiences with themselves being eaten. So, I wondered whether I could create another main character that is vegan for an entirely different and outlandish reason, one that people would find absurd. And so, I have a vegan protagonist in a vegan culture that believes animals are evil and poisonous.

It was a fun experiment and I loved writing this character.

This is all fine and good for the beginning of stories, but sometimes, for reasons we can’t quite grasp, the plot slows down or outright grinds to a halt. In one such instance, I was advised to bring in ‘a man with a gun.’

Now, I don’t know what you would think, but I took this literally. Then I sat for several minutes with a wrinkled-up nose trying to work out how to politely say no to this idea, and how I could even make that work in many of my scenarios, thinking there are no guns and this hasn’t been hinted at or foreshadowed at all.

Someone else once told me about this same concept but pointed out that it is a metaphor, and as a system to move things forward it is used frequently. Take the recent Aquaman film as an example. A feature I noticed throughout the movie was that there were a lot of exposition scenes cut short by literal explosions. This is ‘a man with a gun.’ Maybe those explosions could be fireworks that surprise your love interests into each other’s arms? Maybe it could be a furious mother-in-law exploding into the scene and making a bizarre accusation? Maybe that explosion is an alien spaceship landing?

Who knows?

Well, the author.

Yet, I want to drag us back to the literal interpretation that I had of a ‘man with a gun.’ My immediate responses was, “What if you’re writing classic sword and sorcery fantasy?” Well, why not?

And the thought experiment begins.

Say you’re in a world where sorcerers rule supreme, or there’s a war where the magic-wielders of society are like the queen on a chess board. Though feared, people wouldn’t simply kowtow to magic if they thought they stood a chance. People are rebellious, curious, inventive and stubborn in nature. We want to be in control and we definitely do not like power imbalances so…

…why wouldn’t someone invent a gun?

Fantasy is often seen as a genre typically set in a kind of quasi-medieval period, with magic used to stunt technology. However, if magic isn’t available for everyone to use, those non-magic wielders could very easily try to bridge the power gap with technology.

So, your protagonist is on the battlefield. Let’s say they’ve been training as a mage and they’re trying to subdue a rebellion. They’ve been told their whole lives that non-magic wielders are ungrateful for the lives that sorcery has brought them. They cannot save themselves. They cannot do anything without governance from the magical elders or whatnot. Yet, they keep uprising. They get swatted down. They rebel again and so on. They are looking to their super-awesome Obi-Wan-esque mentor and being amazed at how awesome they are. People are bowing to their magic, or dying—I don’t know, this is up to you—and fleeing in fear—BANG!

Obi-Wan mentor looks shocked. Confused. Then down. Their gut is bleeding from a small wound that has appeared from nowhere. Your protagonist is shocked. There’s supposed to be a secret force-field around the mages to protect them from spells and physical damage. They scan the field, but they cannot see a spell-caster, only a lone person standing in the chaos holding what looks like a narrow tube.

Another BANG.

Another hole in Obi-Wan mentor’s gut.

They fall.

Your inciting incident is ‘a man with a gun.’ Sure, this is now the beginning of a novel, maybe, but it also becomes your through-line as your protagonist goes on a journey to discover how Obi-Wan mentor was killed. Maybe you have a second thread from the perspective of the man with the gun? If this gun had appeared from nowhere, it would seem almost natural to pursue it, as non-magic wielders will want to use this weapon to level the playing field.

So, there’s a brief thought experiment, and I hope you can follow how it escalates and begins to feed itself.

A better way is to try this for yourself. The wilder the scenario, the better, maybe?

Stephen King opened his multi-novel epic fantasy series the Dark Tower by literally inserting a man with a gun into a fantastic world, doing so in the first sentence of the first novel.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Could you imagine how the Velveteen Rabbit would have gone if Margery Williams had followed this advice?

To try it yourself, think of a particularly boring scene in your work-in-progress, one that you haven’t enjoyed writing, or maybe a scene in a film or book that you didn’t exactly like, or a cooking show you watched this morning, and insert a man with a gun, and see what happens.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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