"'In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns."
That's one of my favorite writing quotes of all time. Well, up there. I'm not actually the sort of person who does a great job remembering quotes. I forget things I've said myself all the time. Every once in a while, I'll have this conversation with friends where they'll say something funny or clever and I'll laugh the pure from-the-gut laugh of an idiot child surprised by a funny face.
They'll give me a strange pitying look and then tell me I'm the one who originally said that. About half the time they'll say that's not the first time they've reminded me of this fact. Words arranged in clever order? They tend to slip from my mind in favor of awesomely useful information like the distance from the earth to the sun measured in fathoms, or the scientific name for the effect that makes the sky blue, or maybe an interesting anecdote about how Romans used to brush their teeth with Portuguese urine.
Quotes don't stick with me. I need Google to quote movies, even ones I've seen a dozen times. Even the ones that most people think of as highly quotable. I just don't remember that stuff.
So, yeah. Not the kind of guy who remembers quotes. My brain just doesn't work that way.
But this one stuck. I had to Google it to get the exact wording, though.
It's a great piece of advice. There's nothing quite like a good cliffhanger or bit of sudden jarring action to make you sound like you know where the plot's going.
I mean, J. J. Abrams made a career out of it: I think I made it through the first two seasons of Alias before it ever occurred to me that they were making all that shit up as they went along. The constant cliffhangers kept me going.
Look, people with guns moving purposefully! There's another plot point coming! Obviously, things must be getting serious.
I use it all the time when I'm GM'ing roleplaying games. In the context of RPG's it serves several purposes:
1. It keeps the excitement level high. Players have to react to the threat, figure out what to do, minimize the risk of death and all that. There's no time to plan. Dice are going to get rolled, hit points will get depleted. A death trap has been sprung. Time to act.
2. It makes you look like you have a plan. Can't stress this enough. If people are doing something to the party, there has to be a reason for it, right? Right?! It's all part of your master plan. These gunmen have to be coming from SOMEWHERE. Well, not so much, but...
3. It gives you breathing space. While the party is figuring out the threat, you can stop and think about the bigger picture. It doesn't take that much mental space to resolve fights/crisis situations. You can also eavesdrop on what the players are saying while things are playing out and use that to feed the next part of the plot. It's just one of the tools I use to shake down the players for plot/adventure ideas without just coming out and asking them for feedback.
Basically, I'm a lazy GM.
On the writing side of things, it's still a great bit of advice.
If you can't think of anything to do or you can't make up your mind between several possibilities on where to go next, it's a good sign things are stagnating. For me, these moments usually happen in the middle of a chapter where the characters are just standing in a room, blinking at each other. Everything's spun down to a sort of dull status quo.
Sometimes these chapters just happen. Maybe it's important that a couple of characters meet, trade threats/information/heartfelt assurances of something or other. Maybe they have to do something to make the rest of the book's plot hang together.
But you finish writing the scene and realize that you've got maybe half a chapter filled. Not enough to call a full chapter, but too much useful stuff to just trim or fold into another, more interesting part of the book.
Or maybe the plot just needs a bit of downtime to let things settle out. Sometimes that downtime is a little hard to parse, though, and you need a good exit point.
Cue the gunmen.
It doesn't even really have to be gunmen. It could be an angry elephant. A random phone call from a relative who's in danger. Could be a thunderstorm or a sudden panic attack, maybe the main character's kid winds up in the emergency room because he tried to ingest a rock.
At the very least it gives you a built in excuse to add action and tension, enough of it to wrap the dead stump of a chapter and get you into the next, hopefully more interesting one.
I suppose it could come across as arbitrary and formulaic if you overuse it, but my experience has been that I tend to justify shocking reversals as much as possible. It acts as a creativity aid sometimes. Who are these guys? Who do they work for? Why are they here now?
The chapter I'm working on this week is one where this advice applies.
There's a subplot I need to address, but it's one that only requires 1500 words to deal with, tops. The way it's arranged, it needs to happen at the beginning of a chapter and it requires a fair amount of dialogue. The next chapter is also a talky one, so I can't just bang the two together. Banging two talk-heavy scenes together back to back is a one-way ticket to boredomville unless you're much better at writing dialogue than I am.
So I'm having gunmen burst into the room, so to speak. One half of the scene resolves in the current chapter. Then it shakes out in the beginning of the next. That's how beats naturally work. Heavy-soft. High-low. Talk-action-talk. It makes for more variety and, most importantly, keeps your readers awake.