Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Hiding a Gun

This month, let’s take a break from big concepts and look at an ordinary writing technique.  A very  basic nuts-and-bolts chunk of advice for you to keep in mind. 

To some writers, just discussing this topic will seem sleazy – the most obvious plot device – but it happens in stories because it happens in life:  The one detail or mistake or character flaw you’ve forgotten about… it comes back around to destroy you.

In the book/movie Breakfast at Tiffanys, the female lead makes money by visiting a criminal in prison, and posing as his niece to convey messages coded to sound like weather forecasts.  This seems like a funny job, a lark, and it’s revisited in passing references throughout the first half of the novella, but then it’s dropped and we forget it.  The plot moves forward.  It seems everything is doomed to go down one happy path.  Then Holly Golightly is arrested for carrying those earlier messages.  The predictable plot is wrecked, and the main characters are thrown into crisis.

That’s hiding a gun.  Some form of device that you can introduce, then forget, then re-introduce to bring your plot to resolution.

At first, I hesitated even discussing this topic.  From now on, you too will be doomed to recognizing “guns” as they’re introduced in the first scenes of every movie or book.  You’ve seen them all your life:

In every James Bond movie, Bond is introduced to all the gadgets in the lab that we can look forward to him using to resolve the plot.

In Stephen King’s The Shining, the moment the hotel caretaker mentions the pressure relief valve on the furnace boiler – you know it will explode to resolve the plot.

In Lillian Hellmann’s play, The Little Foxes, when the maid carries a glass bottle of heart medicine and tells everyone she’s not going to break it…  you know as soon as the father has his heart attack, that bottle will get broken.

The buried gun is a promise or a threat you fulfill in order to wrap up your story.

It can be a Big Question:  The sled Rosebud in Citizen Kane, which is nicely shown only after the characters have abandoned their quest.  Also consider the “interview” that forms the heart of Suddenly Last Summer.  That entire play is a long tease leading to a short, dramatic story.  As are so many courtroom dramas.

It can be a Physical Process:  Usually a pregnancy – a nice way to limit your story to nine or ten months.  Consider Rosemary’s Baby.  Or Cabaret.  A nice, natural way to have a character’s past actions catch up with them and change or destroy them.   Another example is Guts, where the first lines of the story tell you:  “…this story should last as long as you can hold your breath, then just a little bit longer…”  before we spin off into two distracting stories that will help us forget the “gun.”

It can be a Count Down:  An actual amount of calendar or clock time, be it 48 Hours or Around the World in Eighty Days.

In all these forms, the “gun” is a framing device that helps you limit the length of your story and bring it to crisis before it becomes too long and loses energy.

The device is usually called “hiding a gun” because of the scene in Act One of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull.  There a character loads a gun and leaves it.  Of course, the rest of the play the audience is waiting for the shooting.

In college, and later, in diesel service training classes, I hated sitting through classes where the teacher assumed everyone knew the same information.  No one would risk looking like a fool – to ask a simple, obvious question – so we’d all sit there, bored and confused, while the teacher charged even deeper and deeper into automobile refrigerant recover systems or wiring schematics.  God bless the student who would finally ask:  “How does the heat-exchanger work on hot days?”  Or, “What’s an Open/On circuit?”

That student, who admitted being dumb and risked asking something, after class almost everyone would sneak over and thank him or her for asking what we all were too afraid to ask.

If techniques such as hiding the gun seem too simple, too obvious, please know that these are skills I didn’t know when I started writing fiction.  As crude as it seems, this is something none of my college courses taught.

As a result, my peers and I wrote endless stories and novels that ran on and on and on for a thousand pages and never seemed to come to a solid end. 

Hiding the gun can be crude and obvious – or it can be so subtle your reader will be dazzled.

If you consider the device dated and clumsy, take a look at the short story by Mark Richard called This Is Us, Excellent, from his story collection The Ice at the Bottom of the World.

In the story, a young boy describes a “carnie” who runs a ride at the local amusement park.  In particular, the boy describes the carnie’s tattooed arms as the kind of tattoo that just looks dark blue when you see it through bars in the local jail.  At the point in the story where this description comes – it’s terrible, the reader is jarred by this simile that is so beyond the experience of a small boy.  Reading, you shake your head and think Mark Richard botched that bit of description.  But, after you’ve finished the story – even days after, it hits you why Richard described the tattoos in that seemingly too-sophisticated way.  Here is a hidden gun that alludes to a scene that takes place after the story is finished.  At this point, midway through the story, we’re given a glimpse of the future beyond the last page.  The gun is hidden.  We forget it.  Then, it’s only by re-reading or reflecting on the story that we discover the story’s true – very sweet – ending. 

Sometimes, you know your gun before you start writing.  You plant it and move on.

More often, you don’t know your gun.  After two hundred pages, you panic because no climax is happening.  At that point, you re-read your earlier chapters and find a detail or character you’ve forgotten and discarded.  With very little re-writing, you can bring that detail back and use it as your gun.  To create the chaos you need – the iceberg in Titanic.  Or to resolve the chaos you’ve created – the sled in Citizen Kane.

To anybody who thinks a hidden gun is bad, keep trying.  What makes it good or bad is how well you hide your gun. 

Now the homework.  Find a copy of This Is Us, Excellent and figure out the hidden gun and what it alludes to.

Beyond that, take another look at your favorite books and movies – with an eye out for the hidden gun.  One of my favorites is the grim love story They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?   In the final scene, Jane Fonda pulls a gun out of her purse.  The first time I saw the movie, this seemed odd.  Where did she get that gun?  But re-watching the movie, that gun is used constantly in the plot, to start races…   It’s hidden – and the way she steals (by having sex with a gross guy) it is beautifully hidden – and creates a strong intention for her character, an intention only apparent after she’s dead.

After you’ve dissected everything, look for new ways to “hide guns.”  Beyond the three types I described – the question, physical process, the clock.  The Road Trip or quest makes a good gun.  So does disease.  Try to find a gun that no one has used.  Knock yourself out.

Thanks for last month’s questions.  If you have more, submit them, and I’ll get to them in mid-May.

Thank you for The Emperor Thread.  The format of short stories is addictive and perfect for the bathroom – where so much short writing gets read.  That’s a good thing.  A complement.  Only my favorite books live on the back of my toilet.

That’s why this lecture is late.  Since I delivered the first draft of Haunted, last week, I’ve been enjoying The Emperor Thread as a quick, funny vacation from writing. 

You’ve really created a beautiful book.

Again, later this year, I’ll answer more letters – but only those sent between two dates yet to be announced.  If you’d like a personal response, please keep checking the web site for that future mailing “window,” and make sure to write between the two dates.

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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