“Your badge and your gun”

We were working on the script for the first Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law. The director, Andy Davis, said, “We need a scene where Steve is ordered to turn in his badge and his gun.”

I remember thinking, “Really? Hasn’t that same moment been in every detective movie since silent pictures?”

I was wrong.

Richard Madden (he was Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones”) in Netflix’ “The Bodyguard”

We wrote it and it worked. Last night I was watching the British series, The Bodyguard (which is really good) on Netflix. Sure enough, they had a “Turn in your badge and your gun” scene. It worked too. The Silence of the Lambs, same thing, this time with Jodie Foster. In The French Connection, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is pulled off the case. This same scene gets included by top-shelf writers and filmmakers over and over. Why?

I began thinking about this metaphorically. What does “your badge and your gun” really mean?

It means our hero has been stripped of his or her societal authority. In the Navy, they tear off your petty officer’s stripes. In the Special Forces, they take your tab. At Harvard, they revoke your tenure.

This moment, it seems, is a mandatory station-stop on the hero’s journey. It’s a convention of many, many genres.

What this beat means for the hero is that he or she must decide, “Will I continue my quest (to solve the crime, to save the damsel, to redeem myself) even though society has revoked my official authority and I am now totally on my own?” 

In fact, the hero’s jeopardy is even worse because now she or he has been forbidden under penalty of law/expulsion/sanction from pursuing that (honorable) course.

With this moment and the choice that has been thrust upon the hero, the story’s stakes have gone way up. The price the hero must pay has been elevated dramatically. 

In the audience, we love it because we get to see what the hero is made of. If he or she were to back off at this moment, we would hurl tomatoes at the screen. We want our protagonist to be all-in, hell or high water, do or die.

In other words, some version of the “Turn in your badge and your gun” moment is a necessary beat across multiple genres. It’s in Westerns, it’s in love stories, it’s in apocalyptic thrillers.

Whatever story I’m working on, I must ask myself, “Do I have a Badge and Gun scene of some kind … and if not, why not?”

There’s no doubt in my mind that some version of this scene must be in there.

The trick is to write it in some new way, with some innovative twist.

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41 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on September 8, 2021 at 2:32 am

    What an interesting concept. And this surely is applicable in the macrocosm of the wider world. When your power, confidence, time, tools, and joie-de-vivre have been eroded, are you still in? Or will you pull the rip cord?

  2. Ohanna on September 8, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Love it. The best Disney movies have this too, over and over again. Thank you for the insight as always.

  3. Mia Sherwood Landau on September 8, 2021 at 7:17 am

    Yes! Thank you for crystal clarity on do-or-die truth! I honestly think it is this dichotomy readers and watchers crave the most because it is what we want to avoid in real life, right?

  4. Denise on September 8, 2021 at 7:19 am

    Fantastic! I just finished a mega bike ride (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route 2,400 miles). My riding partner bailed after 3 weeks. I had to decide if I’d go on by myself or bail along with him. I went on. That’s when the journey began. They took away my “gun and badge” so to speak. This really helps me tell the story.

    • Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 8:16 am

      Denise,
      First of all, WELL DONE! That sounds BRUTAL. I love it. Secondly, It made me think of the long term consequences of both actions: quitting and choosing to suffer and finish. I am curious to see if, 5 years from now, those two choices are repeated over and over. The choice to quit becomes easier and easier, while the choice to endure–while not easier–becomes more familiar, more who you are, more intuitive and easy to make.

      I’ve been thinking about the state of affairs lately–commiserating is more accurate–and I’ve come down to the difference between words and deeds. Which matter more? It seems to me that for many people deeds do not matter as long as their words are correct. As a man of action, I’m much more concerned with deeds over words.

      I would be interested in the two different narratives about Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from you and your friend. How many people might sympathize with a narrative that ends with, “I just couldn’t go on…” and seeing it as heroic as your story of, “3/4 the way through, my riding partner bails and I’m left with the choice to quit or endure…I chose to win…” For me, your deeds matter! Well done.
      bsn

    • Ben on September 8, 2021 at 8:27 am

      Bravo! I’ve done a lot of cycling over the years and noticed early on that there a those who talk a good game, and those who really do it. Congrats for being in the latter group.

    • Joe on September 8, 2021 at 9:10 am

      What a great achievement. I can see from your “About” (https://www.dispatchesfromalongandbumpyroad.com/about) that the Great Divide route is not your first rodeo. Cheers!

  5. Joe Jansen on September 8, 2021 at 7:21 am

    I’m following the lead of a friend and rewatching Game of Thrones. The photo of Richard Madden (Robb Stark… still grieving the Red Wedding) had me thinking about examples in that series: people who’ve had their power and legitimacy taken from them, or have given it up voluntarily. The changes of fortune, power, and authority make the characters so much more interesting and drives the story forward (thinking of Shawn Coyne’s “polarity shift” or “valence shift”). Off the top of my head from Game of Thrones:

    Ned Stark: Literally threw his badge on the table, forfeiting his “Hand of the King” pin and dropping it on the table in front of Robert Baratheon (disagreeing with the king’s plan to assassinate the Targaryen girl).

    Tyrion Lannister: On the return of his father Tywin to King’s Landing, Tyrion also lost his position as Hand of the King when his father took on the role, with Tyrion being banished from his opulent quarters to some dusty attic room.

    Cersei Lannister: Run afoul of the High Sparrow, she lost all of her authority and prestige (see her “walk of shame”), and was held captive.

    Jamie Lannister: Golden boy, father’s favorite, who lost a metaphorical badge of authority. With a reputation as the finest swordsman in the realm, he had his right hand lopped off, removing a principal source of his power.

    There are others, of course. This is part of what makes characters engaging: seeing the weak find their power and rise; seeing the powerful fall from their heights. Mirrors our own lives, I reckon.

    • Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 9:20 am

      I gotta convince Domestic-6 to watch GOT and The BodyGuard! She’s rather stubborn in television shows…
      bsn

      • Joe on September 8, 2021 at 11:27 am

        Ha! Yeah, you can fast-forward though certain parts.

  6. Jennifer Smith on September 8, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Steve this is so great-Mare of Easttown has it too!

    • Joe on September 8, 2021 at 8:40 am

      Good one, Jennifer. Sure enough!

  7. Connie Bennett on September 8, 2021 at 8:20 am

    What an utterly brilliant insight, Steven! As it is, your The War of Art already intrigued me to keep going. Now, your new turn-in-your badge-and-gun metaphor offers more perspective. Without an explanatory scenario, years ago, I had to do something like this but nonetheless, I stayed the course, and now, AT LAST, after years, my LONG-in-the-works next book, I blew my diet! Now what?, is on the pipeline. Thanks for your ideas. Gotta go get your new book now.

  8. Sam Luna on September 8, 2021 at 8:22 am

    I have a post-it note stuck in the middle of a book draft describing my need to write exactly this kind of chapter. Now I can replace that scribbling with a simple “Badge & Gun Scene” and refer back to tis post. Thanks as always for the gems Coach!

  9. Bing on September 8, 2021 at 8:26 am

    I have no idea where this fits in but I have been watching a lot of military YouTube lately. I am starting to get tired of people saying God is love etc, etc. The world is going batsh*t crazy and I am starting to believe that God is also a freacking Navy Seal. God also has a military mind like Steve has. I also know that I have got to toughen up more to keep doing my art and stay on this planet.

  10. Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 8:30 am

    Stripped bare. Naked before the Gods. Who are we without our trappings? I sound like a one trick pony here, but this ‘gun and badge’ insight is also why I love ‘all you’ve got’ physical challenges. They strip us bare. Leave us exposed, vulnerable, silhouetted. Scary place to be, but critical if we want to confront the world with courage.

    Everything is practice. Denise’s comment above is terrifying. Will her friend chose to quit more often now? Sadly, I think he will. Those neural pathways have now been laid. It will be easier to chose to quit than to endure.

    I was thinking about this when doing a sprint workout on a treadmill a few weeks ago. It was a workout that I used repeatedly while training for the Marine Corps Marathon back in 2014. I haven’t been as active this past 18 months, am 7 years older…anyway I wanted to quit so bad. I realized that I had jumped back into this type of workout without taking honest stock of where I am physically right now. I chose to slow down–and re-think my goals/expectations of workouts.

    I need to set my goals very carefully, with honest humility, or I will attempt things too challenging–and be forced to quit. Quitting is contagious. My older and (hopefully) wiser insight is to shoot for small even micro wins that are sustainable which build habits of completion.

    Funny where my mind goes after reading Steve’s posts and the responses every Wednesday.
    bsn

  11. Maureen Anderson on September 8, 2021 at 8:40 am

    I see a lot of parallels to divorce here. Who are you without that supposed stamp of approval from another person, the one who changed his mind about the forever business?

    • Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 4:35 pm

      Maureen,
      I had to come back to this. It hit me in the gut. After I thought about it, I do see the parallels. Kellie and I have been watching this show on Netflix called “click bait“. As the story is unfolding, neither partner was pure as the wind driven snow. Life is complicated. Generally speaking, we hurt those with whom we love the most. I wish you well.
      bsn

      • Maureen Anderson on September 8, 2021 at 5:20 pm

        Oh, gosh. Brian! I got divorced thirty years ago.

        At the time it felt like being pushed off a cliff in slow motion. I didn’t want it, hadn’t seen it coming, and it erased everything I thought I knew.

        But thank heavens. Everything I love about myself — or my life — can be traced back to that scary time. I was so thankful early on for the plot twist, and (as I mentioned) I came to realize what hurt the most was the loss of status. Isn’t that a terrible thing to admit?

        I’ve been remarried for 27 years, and I can’t imagine a world without the daughter we have. So you won’t be surprised this is my favorite quote of all time, from Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”

        After I posted my first comment I wondered if it sounded like I was in the throes. You’re a sweetheart for checking in. Thanks!

        • Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 5:58 pm

          Maureen,
          Phew! That is great to know. Kelly and I (Siri never remembers how to spell names…) celebrated 29 year last week. I was trying to picture how I would feel if this ended tomorrow-and you’re correct that much of how I see myself is tied to marriage.

          Congrats on a better path!
          bsn

  12. Lavender Girl on September 8, 2021 at 8:50 am

    Great point Steve! Reminds me of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison – who ultimately has to give up far more than her gun and badge in order to continue to do her job…. One of the most powerful sagas I’ve ever seen. You’re right, it’s everywhere.:)

    • Brian Nelson on September 8, 2021 at 9:00 am

      Best TV show EVER! EVER! Without a doubt the best finale I’ve ever seen. Simply brilliant.
      bsn

      • Joe on September 8, 2021 at 9:20 am

        Ditto on this one, too!

  13. Chris on September 8, 2021 at 9:31 am

    Are there any (good) stories where the hero gave up the gun and badge and went a different route? What if Segal turned them in, said, “OK, you’re right,” and took a vacation or switched careers?

  14. Susan Sizemore on September 8, 2021 at 9:58 am

    It does work on so many levels! Life is full of subtle (and not so subtle) events/crossroads where we are asked (or choose) to “turn in our badges and our guns” from organizations, groups, circles, churches, schools, families and countries etc. The possibility is always there as a potential repercussion whenever our perceived “truth” doesn’t match the “truth” of the ecosystem we are engaging in and we driven to follow through, despite consequences and the real or metaphorical feelings of “even though society has revoked my official authority and I am now totally on my own?” are ever present.

  15. Rob Tuscani on September 8, 2021 at 5:33 pm

    I love this. The idea of a character being renounced or rejected by the thing they love or cherish the most can lead the character down various roads: such as “I’ll show those bastards” or “Screw them, I didn’t need them anyway. And when they have solved the main conflict, this may also allow the protagonist to say, screw you, I’m better than you. I don’t need your stinkin’ badge. With cops, it also gives them more opportunity to work outside the law and (perhaps) do some illegal activities to apprehend the “crooks” or do some pretty nasty things to our antagonist. Taking/Removing something symbolic of beauty, love, truth, justice and a way of life is such a great tool within a story. Where would Luke be without the removal of the love of his aunt and uncle? This concept opens a multitude of ideas. Thank you, sir, for your brilliant insight.

  16. Chuck DeBettignies on September 8, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    After the “your badge and your gun” moment, we see if we’re glued to the mission.

  17. Jackie on September 9, 2021 at 4:21 am

    Turning in your badge and gun reminds me of the lyrics from the song Closing Time by Semisonic.
    Closing time, every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end.
    Every rejection is a chance to send to the next agent or to start a new story.

  18. Jurgen Strack on September 9, 2021 at 4:59 am

    Hope you don’t mind my sharing this story with you friends.
    Last year I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. My nephew felt inspired and asked to join me. I embarked on the long car journey from Scotland via Germany (picking up my nephew en route) to the starting point in the French Pyrenees. After 3 days my nephew contracted Tendonitis. We went through the full A&E hospital experience to get him seen to, but he had to bail, could go on no more. We ate pizza and the next day he flew back to Germany.
    My journey had only just began, on my own, I walked over a 1000 Km all across northern Spain. Every day it was get up, walk as far as your legs will carry you, then eat, socialise a little with all those other wonderful people you meet along ‘the way’ and sleep. Same again the next day, and the next…It was the best 7 weeks or so of my life.

  19. Michael Esser on September 9, 2021 at 8:04 am

    You write:
    “He or she must decide, “Will I continue my quest even though society has revoked my official authority and I am now totally on my own?”

    I would offer a slightly different take on that moment: It is the inevitable moment in every hero’s journey when the hero has to give up his old self in order to become that person that he/she was meant to be, the person he/she needs to become in order to fight the enemy and return home a new person, with the elixir.

    In short: This is when the main character becomes the protagonist and makes the story truly his/her own.

  20. Pam Jones on September 9, 2021 at 9:47 am

    Perhaps there is a time when the Hero’s journey requires a step outside the current paradigm, as in Atlas Shrugged or as an alternative to the Siberian Dilemma.

  21. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 10, 2021 at 3:28 am

    Thank you dear Steve and everyone,

    I will read and enjoy the comments too when I have some more time, for now I stopped a bit from working to read the post (trying to not let resistance in! It’s always just around the corner!) This is a beautiful point to make. It reminded me of a story where there is that knight who saved a princess from a dragon’s attack. She -and all her people- welcomed him, and they married and he was her hero. But as the years passed, when more dragons would threaten the kingdom, every time he went out to fight, the princess (because of the need to care for him and her fear not to lose him) would give him advice and new tools and tricks on how to kill the dragon, discouraging him from using his own sword. He would kill them every time, but something inside him started to fade. Until one day, the story says, he was wandering across the fields when he heard another princess crying out for help from her tower. He saw a big dragon trying to breach the walls, and he decided to fight against the beast. But when he was getting prepared to attack, he saw all the weapons and tricks etc. that his princess had given him, and he was confused. At a glance, holding his breath, he threw away all that stuff and after many years grabbed his sword again and fought the dragon with all his might. When he killed him, everyone in the kingdom welcomed and admired him, he became one with the princess and never returned to his first princess…

    This is to say, how much power the writer’s return to his own “gun and badge” can have on him/her! To return to yourself after loosing it, or after being stripped from it by the society or the circumstances, may be a symbol and a clearing of the way of the warrior. At the end, we must win with our old, maybe rusty, but perfected in a strange way through our journey, sword/gun/badge. Or else… maybe the victory is not exactly ours…

    A powerful point indeed, I hadn’t put it in words, but now that you mentioned it, I can tell they use it everywhere.

  22. Simon Townley on September 10, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    And in the French Foreign Legion they have the ceremonial breaking of the sword.

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