I was both somewhat chagrined and strangely reassured when I discovered some advice I’d given at a workshop on overcoming writer’s block the other week–to wit, when in doubt, have someone pull a gun–was almost a direct lift of advice Raymond Chandler is said to have given (thanks, TVTropes.org!)
It does occur to me, though, that the advice works best when the gun-drawer or door-kicker is not someone who *always* draws guns and kicks doors. You can make even the most outrageous actions humdrum through overuse. I am reminded of the movie Independence Day, where the alien ships start by blowing up the major cities of the world, then going to the next tier, then the next…such that by the time they get to blowing up Houston the audience no longer reacts to a city of four million people getting annihilated, because it’s 75th on the list or whatever.
When you start with drawing the gun, or blowing up the city, or whatever attention-getting device you’re employing, where do you go later? You can raise the stakes (two guns? a bazooka?) or you can subvert (he bursts through the door, brandishing a bouquet of freshly cut tulips) or you can play for laughs (he bursts through the door, and everyone else in the room draws a gun on him, including the kid in the stroller), but the one think you absolutely cannot do is pull the same damn gun and kick the same damn door in and expect to get the same effect.
I think an author has more leeway with internal conflict and tension-ratcheting. How many times can a character experience the same crisis of conscience or confidence before readers revolt? Depends. Is it a fundamental character flaw or something they can learn to cope with? Have they advanced and then backslid?
All this is apropos of plotting out the next Ray Farrell story. Serial characters bear a special burden. They can’t change too much too fast, or you risk losing what drew people in to start with; yet if they don’t change you end up with self-parody at some point. We’ll see how well I walk the fine line.