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When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.
As codified by pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, Chandler's Law is a concise but evocative piece of advice for writers who have somehow painted themselves into a corner, plotwise. The addition of a new opponent or complication, usually amidst a burst of violence, can free a protagonist from where he has become mired in the current plot.
Although expressed in a form very specific to the genre in which Chandler was writing, the Law can be easily generalized to handle any type of story.
Participants in National Novel Writing Month (which emphasizes wordcount over quality) know this law by a similar mantra: "If all else fails, have Ninjas burst through the wall and attack someone", as the writer should be able to get at least a few hundred words out of the characters suddenly questioning "Ninjas? What the hell is going on here?"
This undoubtedly finds some origin in the Rule of Drama. If guns are too dramatic for you, try dropping a cow for the Rule of Funny version. If an entirely new plotline results, see Halfway Plot Switch. Both Diabolus Ex Machina and Diabolus Ex Nihilo can operate on this principle (with varying levels of success). Conflict Killer is often a result of this. Contrast Code Silver (which is this trope applied to medical and law dramas and otherwise non-action-packed series).
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Anime and Manga
In Naruto, The Chunin Exam Finals culminate in a series of seven one-on-one single-elimination fights between the remaining eight participants. By the middle of the third battle, the Tournament was no longer progressing the story by itself, so the author chose that moment for Orochimaru to reveal his Evil Plan to destroy the Leaf Village.
In season 1 of the Axis Powers Hetalia anime, France, feeling left out and insecure, goes through a rather long series of flashbacks while trying to assure the viewers (and himself) that he was and is a powerful military nation. After a number of clips covering such events as the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc, The defeat of Spain's armada by England and the War of Austrian Succession, France finally snaps back to reality just as Germany walks in/bursts through the door with a rifle in his hands, demanding France's surrender. The Dub even has Germany sarcastically apologizing for interrupting France and asking him mock nicely to put his hands up.
Episode 8 of Hyouka references Chandler's laws by name.
Bleach. Tite Kubo has stated that when he gets writer's block, making new characters helps overcome it. The trouble is, he doesn't create one or two characters, he creates entire groups which introduces a new Cast Herd leaving the story with Loads and Loads of Characters.
Make a list of all the horrible things that could possibly happen to your character and consider going down the list.
To see this concept in action, read Waid's Justice League of America arc "Tower of Babel", in which the League especially Batman go right on down the list.
There was an issue of The Flash where Wally was involved with an uncomfortable relationship talk with his girlfriend. The captions really sum it up best:
Then — out of the blue — ninjas attack.
My Immortal abuses the concept so much that it becomes a Random Events Plot very quickly. It's pretty coherent (Ebony and Draco meet, date, screw like bunnies, break up) until Voldemort shows up. And Snape becomes a pedophile. And Draco gets captured. And Dumbledore turns evil. And Draco commits suicide. And comes back to life. This is all in about 2,000 words, by the way.
Which is, in itself, a kind of Mind Screw, just to keep up with what little coherency the story has.
This is something that's actually acknowledged (and even encouraged) in the Touhou fandom. Behold, the existence of templates◊ (which are forbidden)!
Magic. note Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, Imperishable Night, Phantasmagoria of Flower View, Double Dealing Character
In Last Action Hero, this is lampshaded when the protagonists lose track of the Big Bad; said Big Bad just keeps going about his business unfettered instead of giving them another lead to chase. Only by dropping Action Hero tropes for a while and considering the situation carefully do they find him Just in Time.
While the film is practically made of "People Busting Through Doors and Shooting At People," there is one scene that particularly feels like this trope: The main characters are even bored, and the plot is kinda on hold; suddenly, their best friend kicks through the door and starts waving his gun around and screaming for everyone to pack their shit.
It turns out the friend bursts in panicking because he just shot and killed three people in broad daylight.
After they wrote about him bursting in, they asked themselves "now why did he burst in like that?". That's the whole point of the rule: it gives you a new direction to take and hopefully find yourself back on track. Sounds like it worked in this case.
In the sequel to The Expendables, our heroes are trapped under gunfire and the enemy has pulled out a tank. Suddenly, the enemy is quickly butchered by some unseen force. Considering the nature of the movie, this was likely a parody of this trope's place in action films. Oh, and it was Chuck Norris.
Saving Private Ryan has a scene that also feels like this trope. The squad regroups with an American unit in a building, only to have a wall collapse, revealing German soldiers occupying an adjacent room, resulting in a standoff. Captain Hamill (Ted Danson) and one of his men show up with Thompsons unnoticed and shoot all the German soldiers, ending the standoff.
Happens in Casino Royale, when Bond is being tortured by Le Chiffre for information. Bond points out that he will never give up the information, and Le Chiffre can't kill him without it, so he decides to castrate Bond. Armed men enter and kill Le Chiffre.
In Stephen King's book on writing appropriately titled On Writing, he mentions the use of this rule to overcome a serious case of writer's block when working on The Stand, namely, by having Harold and Nadine place a bomb and kill several of the main characters, including Nick Andros. And then another bomb, this one nuclear, killing tons more characters.
Lawrence Block also does this. In a book on writing, he illustrated how to maintain conflict between a protagonist and a grizzly bear until the protagonist starts escaping down the river. "Then you give the bear a canoe..."
Chuck Palahniuk has said that, if you want to move a plot along, the best way is to just have another character enter the room and make them say something disturbing.
Chandler's successor, Robert B. Parker, used this trope often with Spenser. Being Spenser, he usually turns the tables on his attackers. He ran into this so often that you kind of started to think that if the bad guys had just sat tight, Spenser wouldn't have had any leads to follow.
In at least some of these cases, Spenser is actually being Genre Savvy. He actively attempts to bait the bad guys into making a run at him so he can thwart them and have someone to get answers from, especially if he doesn't know exactly who the bad guys are.
Justified and Lampshaded in Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots: early in the book, Thursday purchases a 'Suddenly, a shot rang out!' plot device from one of the Well's wordsmiths. Later, when she's in a situation she can't get out of, she cracks it open...and Suddenly A Shot Rings Out! The Bookworld being what it is, there's also a logical, in-universe reason for this to happen, besides Thursday using the device.
In Changes from The Dresden Files, Harry has been strapped to a bed by his friends (Long Story), and a hit-man, presumably sent by the vampires, walks in. Naturally, the shit hits the fan almost immediately.
Live Action Television
In the American version of The Office, Michael Scott misuses this trope constantly at his improv class. Any time he is called to act in a scene, he pulls out a gun to increase drama because "you can't top it". Of course, nobody can top it and it ruins every improv exercise the class attempts.
In fact, improv classes usually state as one of the first rules of scenework that pulling a gun is a "weak choice" — as pointed out above, it keeps everyone else in the scene from contributing anything. Not to say it never happens, of course, or that it can't work when it does happen.
Lampshaded in The Pretender. Jarod narrates that when in doubt, have a man walk in with a gun. A man walks in with some ice cream. As he corrects himself in the narration, the man asks Jarod whether he is Dick Dickson (who Jarod is currently pretending to be). When Jarod answers in the affirmative, the man promptly draws a gun.
Joss Whedon has been quoted as saying that whenever they needed to add to the drama in Firefly, they'd get someone to point a gun at Kaylee.
In "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", Ian holes up with a group of survivors and things are looking quite optimistic for him, so he and the others are promptly attached by a horrible flailing monster called a Slyther that apparently the Dalek Supreme keeps as a pet. At around the same time, Susan is attempting to go through sewers with resistance members and is attacked by some stock footage of a rather small alligator.
"Genesis of the Daleks" has a truly amazing sequence where the Doctor and Harry are being about five minutes too efficient at infiltrating Davros's lab, and so get attacked by a giant orange polystyrene land clam when Harry steps in it after the Doctor points out to him that it should be avoided. The clams are apparently one of Davros's experiments but what purpose they could possibly have is never explained.
There's one in "The Big Bang", with the stone Dalek that chases the characters around.
Jim Henson once commented on his pre-Muppet puppet sketches that when he couldn't think of how to close a sketch, he'd either have an explosion or have one character eat the other. It's pretty clear that this carried over to The Muppet Show.
Two and a Half Men has Alan, while writing a movie in a coffee shop, getting writer's block several times and solving it by having a meteor hit the characters.
"Albuquerque", with its Random Events Plot, seems to be built on this trope. Specifically the instance where he finally gets to the eponymous city and is relaxing in a Holiday Inn. When suddenly a "big fat hermaphrodite with a Flock-Of-Seagulls haircut and only one nostril" knocks on the door to steal his lucky snorkel.
The Dungeons & Dragons adventure Whispers of the Vampire's Blade suggests using this trope, and includes a table of possibilities for who exactly is kicking down the door and why.
Mentioned by name in the Tabletop RPG Feng Shui, in the "GM's advice" section.
The Random Events table in Maid runs on this. It's also somewhat unusual in that, in addition to the GM using it, the players can pay Favor in order to trigger a roll on the Random Event table (assuming that the GM isn't enforcing their Rule Zero rights and saying "you can't do that", which the rulebook advises for more structured scenarios).
This is very common advice for GMs, newbie and veteran alike. Any GM of any description has experienced the awful feeling of their table group starting to screw around and make their own fun because they've grown bored with the plot. This is the smart GM's cue to have a surprise, unkown antagonist leap into the king's throne room and immediately start cracking heads or, if the party is bored of constant fighting instead of talking, to suddenly have the monster's boss walk in, surrender and attempt to talk it out.
Battletech canon plays this straight. When the plot stops feeling like a twisted web of lies, betrayal, and deceit, assassinate a random major protagonist. Has happened at least 8 times.
A similar mechanic exists in Fiasco - at exactly halfway through the game, an event called the Tilt happens where a bunch of extra conflict elements (e.g. "a dangerous animal gets loose", "love rears its ugly head", "someone develops a conscience", "something precious is on fire")are taken from a table and thrown into the game. Played properly, everything should be going horribly wrong already, and the Tilt elements are intended to create a Halfway Plot Switch.
Like many other pulp settings, Rocket Age encourages its use to keep things lively.
The Giant Space Flea Out Of Nowhere seems to be a video game exclusive variant when the game has to provide some kind of challenge, even if the monster has no relation to the scene and the characters ignore it once the fight ends.
In many FPSes, this is the only plot point that happens outside of a cutscene. Apparently Red Steel was designed by Raymond Chandler.
Monster Girl Quest, for all its wonderful writing, doesn't seem to know how to end conversations all that well. Most of the time, they end with "and then a monster appeared."
The Director AI in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 pulls this quite frequently: stay in one place too long instead of advancing and you'll get a bunch of Special Infected coming at you.
It's also more likely to send a Zombie Horde at the Survivors at any given moment the slower they're progressing through the level. This can be something of a vicious cycle when playing on Expert.
Stay too long in one place in the newest version of Minecraft on Hard difficulty and more monsters, with better armor and potion effects, will spawn at night.
Ménage à 3 had perhaps fallen into something of a rut by the end of volume 5, although lead character Gary had at least just escaped from a protracted car-crash relationship. So the writers applied this principal twice over, perhaps even to excess. First, another of the lead characters' boyfriend came through a door (and into the middle of a lesbian orgy) with a startled expression, and then, one strip later, it turned out that Gary had just come through an international plane flight with a naked transsexual lingerie model.
Zoe: I don't believe this! Just when I think we might be having a nice, ordinary issue to deal with, like adultery, you come in screaming about vampires! What happened to normal problems, like credit-card debt?
Strip Tease is a decent slice of life comic, until the writer decides to throw in some "drama" and has the main character's girlfriend kidnapped... three times... by the same people...
Waterworks pulls this off when the plot seems to stall, and even the main character comments on how nothing vital seems to be happening. All of a sudden, after the readers have been fooled into thinking that a leisurely talk scene is about to follow, the hitherto Shrouded in Myth powerful villain bursts through a door, wrestling with a Mini-Mecha. Awesome three-on-one fight scene follows.
ThisWiki's Lessons In Life comic applies this principle to conversations.
Discussed on Cracked at entry #5 where the author Ray Dolin was using his hitchhiking across America experiences to write a book up until a mysterious man shot him in the arm on a drive by shooting, creating a whole new turn of events. It turns out the mysterious shooter never existed, Dolin had just shot himself on the arm to either draw publicity to his upcoming book or because he needed a plot twist to make his story more interesting.
Regular Show uses this a lot, the episode starts with Mordecai and Rigby taking part of something plain or mundane, then before you know it, an Eldritch Abomination comes out of nowhere, a normal person exhibits super natural powers, a normal object comes to life...and more.