Try This: Guns vs. Clocks
'Consider This' Briefly Revisited
Let’s talk about the difference between so-called “guns” and “clocks” in fiction. If you’ve already read Consider This bear with me. I want to get everyone up to speed on these two distinctions so you all have a chance in the upcoming Quiz.
You catch the word ‘Quiz’?
Both guns and clocks are devices that help the writer keep the story under control time-wise. We’ll start with the gun, called that because of Anton Chekhov’s advice: If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.
That’s an implied promise to the reader that your plot will not chug along forever. And it’s a less-subtle promise about how events will come to chaos. In Stephen King’s The Shining it’s the mention that the furnace will explode if the pressure isn’t regularly checked and relieved. In David Fincher’s Alien III, it’s the quick shot of the very hot metal bucket being sprayed with cold water and shattering. A gun needs to be introduced early and – the writer hopes – forgotten by the audience. Done right, the gun seems both surprising and inevitable when it reappears to bring the plot to a climax1.
The gun is named for an object (the metaphoric gun) but it’s usually a dynamic. For example, the exploding furnace, or cold shattering heated objects. In The Joy Luck Club it’s the promise of half-siblings in China; you know eventually someone is going to China to meet those two abandoned babies, right? Another example is the quarter/button in the film Drag Me to Hell. It’s the book of matches in the film The Long Kiss Goodnight. In the extraordinary story Strays by Mark Richard, it’s the mosquito repellent. In the Bible it’s the apple.
For more examples of guns not as objects, but as dynamics, I offer Fight Club and Choke. In both books the gun is a violation of a social contract. In one, the narrator allows dying people to think he’s dying. In the other book, the narrator allows people to think they’ve saved his life. In both books the “gun” is the deception. The moment the dying realize they were duped… and the would-be heroes realize they’ve been scammed, the plot will fall to chaos. The narrator’s carefully made world of lies will collapse. To repeat, deception makes a great gun.
Done badly a gun is the water in The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps at the time people knew the L. Frank Baum book so well that no one kicked about introducing a key element at the moment it was needed. Maybe threatening the Scarecrow with fire is enough to establish the eventual use of water – I’ll let you decide.
Not that I’m any better: The gun in my own novel Survivor isn’t introduced until the final pages.
In contrast, the “clock is a device that counts down to the chaos. In its most-basic form it’s the pregnancy in Rosemary’s Baby. At around nine months the plot will come to a head. In the film Se7en it’s the seven deadly sins. In the film The Ring it’s seven days. As in the ubiquitous phone call, “You’re going to die in seven days…” The clock doesn’t tell your reader how the plot will reach crisis, but it promises when we’ll get there.
For example, the clock in my novel Survivor is the jetliner that will crash when all four of its engines, one by one, flame out. Another clock is the reverse-numbered pages that count down over the course of the book. In old-school newspapers, it was the series of retail display ads that day-by-day read: Only 20 Shopping Days Until Christmas… Only 19 Shopping Days Until Christmas…2
Both the gun and the clock are ways to assure your audience that you won’t string them along forever. More importantly, they’re ways to get you out of the story so you’re not writing that book, story, whatever, forever.
Remember, a gun hints at HOW the story will climax. The clock suggests WHEN that climax will happen. In the near future I’ll run a Quiz about guns and clocks used in several popular stories. Again, the first to answer each question correctly will win a lovely prize.
So if you can subsidize the magic, please…
In the martyr/murder/witness plot, the suicide or martyrdom is the gun that usually triggers the murder and the story’s end. But this isn’t a perfect analogy.
A landmark of my childhood far more powerful than the four candles on the Advent wreath.
Making the cost of shipping just two prizes more than $300!!
Thank goodness the third winner was in Atlanta!
Now I realize that the Quiz launch time put Europeans at an advantage. I’ll always change the launch for future Quizzes so no one time zone gets a consistent leg up.