Like all weird little writing quirks, of which there are many, not all authors fall into this particular trap, but I see it—please believe me—time and time and time again, and that’s a careful hyper-specificity for firearms.
It’s strangely rare that a character pulls “a pistol” on someone, or aims “a rifle” at something. Instead, we poor beleaguered readers are “treated” to a specific and often inexplicably detailed inventory of each character’s varied and robust personal arsenal, and almost always that level of detail is not at all necessary, because it never pays off.
I’ll refer you back to my post on the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” which is the author and playwright’s oft-paraphrased admonition that, “If a gun is hanging on the wall in act one, it must be fired in act two,” which means that if you show your readers (or viewers, etc.) a specific detail, make sure that detail pays off in some way.
Your readers, often unconsciously, are making a sort of mental list of details as they read your book and though they may not be able to articulate why, when a significant portion of those details—or even one key detail—isn’t somehow resolved, those readers will be left with at least the vague feeling that something’s lacking, something’s missing, something didn’t quite connect.
So then why do your readers ever need to know the specific brand and model, or worse, the specific brand and model of accessories, of any given character’s firearm?
Of course, there are all sorts of ways in which a specific gun is important to a story. If a murder is committed and the autopsy finds that the victim was shot by a .38, for instance, then a suspect is apprehended and a pistol is found in his glove compartment—but it’s a 9 mm. Okay, now that matters. But it still doesn’t necessarily matter that the gun in the glove compartment is a Sig Sauer P320 and the murder weapon was a Ruger LCP Standard, because once a .38 is found, connected to a possible suspect, they’re going to be looking at that specific gun, not that make and model of gun, to match it to the bullets found in the body, right?
So then, if one character pulls a handgun on another character and threatens him, and that character being threatened thinks, Oh no, that’s a Glock G42—what does that mean? Does it mean that’s the gun he found in his wife’s purse? Okay—that might matter to the story then. How did this bad guy get his wife’s gun? Is it his wife’s gun, or just another Glock G42? There’s story in there—I get it. It matters. But if all the gun is there for is to hold that character in place while something happens, the fact that it’s a Glock G42 does not matter and instead becomes a detail we’re now waiting to see paid off.
Please tell me this makes sense.
In The Ballad of Black Tom, author Victor LaValle calls out specific firearms, in part, I think, to show us the time period and to illustrate a specific moment in a specific city’s history:
Theodore Roosevelt became president of the Board of Police Commissioners in 1895, and, though serving for only two years, he begun the process of modernizing the force. As a result, the officers had a bevy of weapons as they prepared to take the three tenements. Each man wore his department-issue revolver, but now, from the rear of the emergency trucks, an arsenal appeared. M1903 Springfield rifles; M1911 Browning Hi Power pistols for those who wanted to go in with a gun in each hand. The Browning Model 1921 heavy machine guns were set up on the street. Each required three men to take it down from the trucks. They were set in a row; each one’s long barrel faced the front stoop of a tenement. They looked like a trio of cannons better for a ground war than breaching the front doors of a building.
When the 1921s were set down, they were so heavy chips of tarmac were thrown in the air. At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.
But then by this point in the book we’re well aware of the setting and time period, so I’ll ask: Would this have worked just as well without the make and model numbers? A machine gun is a machine gun when it’s pointed at your front stoop, right? And the model numbers never do come back into the story in any way.
I just finished reading The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, a brilliant novel set in that war-torn city during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The novel follows four characters, one of whom, a woman who calls herself Arrow, is a sniper sworn to defend her city from the “men on the hill,” who also employ snipers to harass the city’s increasingly desperate inhabitants. Here is a woman who depends on her rifle, who is trained in its use, and who is caught in a moment in time where this thing is not a toy, employed in the furtherance of a hobby like deer hunting, but is a matter of life and death. And yet at no point does Steven Galloway, through Arrow’s tight and intimate POV, feel the need to tell us exactly who made that rifle, when, and how it’s different from any other rifle.
I called out this as an example of even when Arrow is interacting with the rifle, we don’t know what kind of rifle it is, much less the brand name of the scope:
The sniper puts the cellist in his sights. Arrow is about to send a bullet into him, but stops. His finger isn’t on the trigger. This isn’t a detail she would usually notice, or care about, but she can see it in her scope, and it makes her pause. His hand isn’t even in the vicinity of the trigger. His right hand holds the uppermost point of the stock, and his shot is clear, but his left hand isn’t on his rifle. It hangs down to his side, out of her view.
Throughout, Arrow lives not in her rifle, but in the totality of her life. This is her experience, not shopping at her local Cabela’s:
This is how she now believes life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.
She thinks of this in the context of pulling the trigger and ending a life. Before she ever killed, she had assumed this would put her life at a clear crossroads. She would behave in a way that demarcated the sort of person she had become. She expected to feel altered somehow from the person she was, or hoped to be. But that wasn’t the case. It was the easiest thing in the world to pull the trigger, a nonevent. Everything that came before, all the small things that somehow added up without her ever noticing, made the act of killing an afterthought. This is what makes her a weapon. A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.
This is the story of a woman experiencing this war, not a rifle experiencing its war. This is personal, not procedural. This is about experience, not inventory.
Whether or not you, yourself, are a gun owner or enthusiast, or are pro- or anti-gun control, as an author of fiction, choose your details carefully, guns included!
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