The Rule of the Gun and Card Tricks in the Dark

Thinking often takes the place of writing for me, which can be a problem. If I know the whole story, what I want to say and how I want to say it, I seem to find little interest in actually writing the book. On the other hand, if I don’t know the major elements of the story, I find little interest in writing. I’ve been performing this balancing act with my grieving woman book. trying to put all the pieces together enough to get the story finished. For example, the woman finds a gun in her husband’s bathrobe pocket, and I’ve been wondering what to do with it. Chekhov said that if you show a gun in the first scene you have to fire it in the third. I followed Chekhov’s rule for Daughter Am I, but I don’t see the woman in my IIP shooting the weapon. (I’ve written so little of the book it’s not a Work-in-Progress but an IIP — Idea in Progress.) The gun could be more of a symbol, something so out of place in her husband’s life that she realizes she didn’t know him at all, and hence she doesn’t know herself. So the book would turn out to be a search for identity, as are all of my novels.

gunIn googling “the rule of the gun” to find its author (I’d forgotten it was Chekhov), I came across a wonderful site: Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction. Only a few terms are specific to science fiction, so it’s a fun glossary for anyone who writes. I especially like:

Black box scene analysis. A convenient means of evaluating how important a scene is. Think of the scene as a black box: characters go in to it and come out of it. What have they gained or lost? What irrevocable things have happened? How are they different people afterwards than before? The black-box scene analysis is a useful means of separating local dexterity (entertaining imagery) from important plot or character development. (CSFW: David Smith)

Card tricks in the dark. Authorial cleverness to no visible purpose. Wit without dramatic payoff. (Lewis Shiner)

Eyeball kick. A perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image. (Rudy Rucker)

Head fake. A plot action that appears to be significant but is rapidly proved to be a net null, leaving the plot moving in exactly the same direction. Excessive head fakes undermine the reader’s engagement because the reader becomes trained that they are not real. (CSFW: David Smith)

Inappropriate mystery. An author will often use mystery as a means of propelling a reader forward: characters speak of things that are opaque to the reader, a character goes offstage to do something important, or a development is referred to indirectly (“I was just heading out the door when the phone rang, with terrible news”). Mystery is inappropriate when the expected dramatic follow-up is lacking: the offstage action proves to be a diversion, or the suspense proves false. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)

Laughtrack. Emotional countersinking, where the characters’ give cues that tell the reader how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry crocodile tears at their own pain, and, by feeling everything themselves, eliminate the reader’s imperative to do so, so the reader disengages. (Lewis Shiner)

Laughtrack is one I am going to have to be particularly careful of in my grieving woman story. In my previous books, I’ve tried to show the story and let readers infer the emotion, but tears are such a part of grieving that I will have to figure out how to engage readers despite the tears.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

6 Responses to “The Rule of the Gun and Card Tricks in the Dark”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    What’s an IIP? I’ve never seen that term before.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Sorry, I didn’t realize I left that in — I rewrote the first opening of this blog. Originally, I’d said I’ve been thinking about my grieving woman book of which I’ve written so little it’s not a Work-in-Progress but an IIP — Idea in Progress. The woman finds a gun in her husband’s bathrobe pocket, and I’ve been wondering what to … . Just goes to show the ripple effect of editing. If you change one thing, you have to check to make sure you don’t need to change something else.

      IIP is no official acronym. I made it up.

  2. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    I like these. I’m going to try to remember them. I don’t think the intention of the laughtrack one was that your character can never cry or laugh. They just should do it when it really contributes to the story beyond whatever other action is being shown.

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