Writing tip: Bring a gun to a knife fight

Sometimes, you just have to throw down.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we had occasion to drive past Philadelphia and reminisce about eating at City Tavern, a very old establishment with excellent food and a ton of Colonial ambiance. As we drove, my wife asked whether eating there resulted in anything that contributed to The Daedalus Incident.

It did, actually. I found a lot of inspiration in Philadelphia, as you can see in this blog post. And there was a point in time when The Daedalus Incident featured a scene set at dinner in City Tavern itself.

That scene was cut early on, and I’m not sorry it went. Without giving too much of the story away, here’s why.

The early drafts of The Daedalus Incident showed reasonable people dealing with extraordinary events — a hallmark, I believe, of good science fiction and fantasy. I generally want my protagonists to be relatable, because I think it helps immerse the reader in the setting and plot. If you’re going to put a sailing ship in space, it helps to have someone on the ground saying, “Whoa.”

So in the scene at City Tavern, I had my protagonists doing what I thought reasonable people would do — sitting down together to try to figure out what The Bad Guy was going to do next, then finishing their beers and heading off to stop him. And indeed, all across the world, people come together, talk it out, and then so resolved (and occasionally fortified with beer), they go off to stop whatever Bad Guy they have in mind.

This, I realized, makes for very, very boring fiction.

Good fiction requires conflict, and not just the major issue that drives the plot. Nearly everything is rife with — and ripe for — conflict. Reasonable people can and do disagree, even when the Fate of the Known Worlds hangs in the balance. And not everybody, in fiction or reality, is reasonable. In fiction, these disagreements should be amplified, and the unreasonableness can and should be entrenched.

Now, let’s not abandon logic here, but if there’s a logical way for a character to provide conflict, then so be it — let them have at it. If the Fate of the Known Worlds is indeed hanging in the balance, it should be REALLY HARD to get everybody lined up to deal with the problem. Big problems can be complex and daunting, and some folks will still place parochial concerns over the Big Problem. You’re going to have a fight every step of the way.

So if people are inclined to fight, then they should fight hard. If it’s a verbal conflict, have someone draw a knife. If it’s a knife fight, someone should draw a gun. If it’s a gunfight, then somebody in the story needs to get seriously hurt.

And for God’s sake, don’t have them sit around and hash it out over dinner like normal people.

I fixed the scene in question by moving it out of City Tavern to a particularly well-known Philadelphia building and enhancing the inherent conflicts between the two sets of characters in question. Ultimately, promises were broken, muskets were drawn and captives were taken. All the hashing-out still occurred in the scene, but it happened at gunpoint, with tension going through the roof, and it made for a far more compelling scene.

Right now, I’m looking at another scene in revisions that needs some tension. My wife’s reminder of the City Tavern bit is making it a lot easier to tackle this revision, because I’m looking for ways in which the various parties can disagree — and I’m finding plenty of them.

Long story short, don’t be afraid to ratchet up the tension in any scene, especially if you’re writing an SF/F thriller like The Daedalus Incident. Nobody should get a rest — especially the reader. Bring a gun to that knife fight and mix it up.

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