“Turn in your badge and your gun.”

I was working on the screenplay for the Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law. I forget who first said this—maybe Steve, maybe the director Andy Davis—but someone piped up, “We need a ‘Turn in your badge and gun’ scene.”

I remember thinking, “Oh no, what a terrible cliche! It’s in every cop movie. We can’t be that lame!”

Even Clarice Starling got yanked off the case.

But of course Steve (or Andy) was right. It was not a cliche. It was a critical All is Lost Moment, in fact it was the All is Lost Moment.

Why is this moment so important? Because it calls forth from the story’s hero an Epiphanal Moment, i.e. his or her response to a make-or-break, life-and-death crisis. It reveals the hero’s true character.

It took me a while to grasp this, but when I finally did, I recalled to myself that even classic films and books are not too proud to have this exact moment. In The French Connection, Popeye and Cloudy are pulled off the case. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling gets her credentials yanked. Even in Top Gun: Maverick, there’s an equivalent scene—when Jon Hamm fires Tom Cruise and takes his flying stripes “permanently.”

In the latter two cases (and in Above the Law), the heroes totally blow off their dismissals. They keep going on their own. And this shows us in the audience that they are driven, committed, all-in. They are real heroes. (In The French Connection, it’s an outside event—the bad guys trying to kill Popeye by ambushing him outside his apartment building—that gets our heroes put back on the case.)

What’s happening in a badge-and-gun moment is the hero, who had heretofore been pursuing his or her objective with the full backing of society or the institution in which he or she serves, suddenly gets her papers pulled. She’s now on her own, a totally free agent. Worse, she’s now been forbidden, under severe penalty, to pursue her object. Will she do it anyway? If she’s a hero in the best movie/novel/legend/myth sense, we already know the answer.

When I’m working on a new story now (thanks, Steve and Andy, for teaching me this), I always ask myself, “Do I have the equivalent of a Badge-and-Gun Moment?” And if I don’t, I’d better have a damn good reason for not having it. 

An All is Lost Moment (of any kind, not just the badge-and-gun variety) should always ask the hero, “How much do you want what you want?” (Love, redemption, saving the world, etc.) Most of us in real life would answer, “Not enough to risk my life/family/career/soul.” But a hero will always come out at, “I want it so much I’ll do ANYTHING.”

More on this next week.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1

THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

noboybookcover

TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

44 Comments

  1. Eric Biehl on April 26, 2023 at 2:45 am

    Thank you. This has come at a time within which I am experiencing a gun and badge moment. Your work, writing and life story remind me that it’s not too late for me

  2. Madeleine on April 26, 2023 at 2:50 am

    I love seeing the passion of the character in these moments!

  3. Gregory on April 26, 2023 at 4:34 am

    For me, it was a “turn in your laptop, badge, and Amex” moment. As a 55 year old, I made a “career limiting decision” and the 30-somethings managing me didn’t like it. All was lost for me, but patients and my coworkers weren’t harmed. And my journey didn’t end there….

    Keep ‘em coming, Steven

  4. Jackie on April 26, 2023 at 5:48 am

    I doodled around in the current children’s novel under the pen waiting for the muse to pass on some direction. One can do so much research, note taking, and stalling. I knew I needed “The Moment”, but what? Aha! Today, I found inspiration and figured out the direction to send the story from reading Steve’s words. The muse appears in many forms. Thanks, and I’m off again. Wishing all a productive week. Show up, no matter what.

  5. JJ Hicks on April 26, 2023 at 5:55 am

    Because of Steve’s posts, I think a lot about the All is Lost moment. Specfically, I think about the beats leading up to it and the beats while in it and the beats leading out of it. The All is Lost doesn’t just automatically happen and then the epiphanal moment. There is transition. Descent, the Depths, and then the rise/realization/epiphany. Watch some of your favorite movies and watch that series of beats that make of the cycle of the All is Lost.

    Also, I’m working on a non-fiction book about leadership. In structuring it, I look to my opening chapter and it spells out my starting point. I use it to see what my All is Lost will look like. I see how my world gets upended. I see the heights and the depths. I know where I’m writing to. As I think about that the action of the third act – even in non-fiction – becomes clearer. It reveals itself to the story of those twin points. Knowing the beginning in advance helps reveal the depths of the All is Lost and the action of the climactic conclusion.

    • Kathy on April 26, 2023 at 10:56 am

      JJ Hicks.. yes!

  6. Nicalady on April 26, 2023 at 6:00 am

    Perfect timing for this message. I accepted the challenge of more than one “all is lost” intense times in my crazy life. As I read this post today, I remembered so clearly the tears running down my face as I considered the consequences if I accepted the challenge. Each time I did, which caused more pain but powerful results. I still wonder sometimes about how driven I was (am) and how this affected my loved ones.
    I look eagerly to your posts. Each one is relevant to me in some way. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

  7. Chuck DeBettignies on April 26, 2023 at 6:03 am

    It seems the badge and gun moment “reveals the hero’s true character” to the Muses too, that we depend on for help. As Steve has noted, it seems when they see that we’re “all in” that’s when the help from them comes.

  8. Jesse Passmore on April 26, 2023 at 7:14 am

    Fantastic thoughts. Thank you.

  9. Kathy on April 26, 2023 at 7:16 am

    Good one. Thank you. Being anti gun, at first my panties got in a bunch. As I continued to read, I realized that the main character in my story, my husband, a Vietnam Vet, of whom I lost a year ago, did literally turn in his badge and gun. Denny stapled a flower on his lapel near his Sargent stripes, and stood his ground. He saw bodies dead and dying every single day while in Vietnam. Seeing what war does, he questioned everything that led a country to such continual violence. He went on to teach in gang zones, realizing that he could make a difference in lives abandoned, even his own. Sometimes the hero stops killing upon request. So reading what you wrote here, Steve, I realize the tension that my hero felt and that I need to draw from that. Denny ended any correspondence this way, PEACE.

  10. Maureen Anderson on April 26, 2023 at 12:55 pm

    I’ve had a “turn in your badge and gun” few months professionally, but was buffered (I thought) by being above reproach when it came to a personal matter. Nope. Wrong about that, too.

    What remained? Only sadness. Last night, awash in grief, I remembered how much better I write when I’m sad. I snapped out of the sadness so quickly I was almost disappointed!

    Being human is so interesting.

    • Kathy on April 26, 2023 at 2:31 pm

      Oh Maureen, your writing, eloquently put, breaks my heart.

  11. Veleka on April 28, 2023 at 4:35 am

    What I love most about this post is that all the steps make sense. First, an authority figure strips you of your power. Second, you accept this and mourn being kicked out of the tribe. Third, you come to your senses and realize you don’t need anyone’s approval to do what you know is right, whether you win or lose, because on a soul level you have to do what’s right.

  12. Sizwe on May 1, 2023 at 7:31 am

    Another way of conceptualizing the “turn in your badge and gun” moment is when the Authority figure (society) casts you out for not conforming to the norm (a normal 9-5 job). You mourn being cast out from the tribe and you pick up the pieces and continue following the dream (whatever artistic/creative bug has bitten you).

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    I feel like “badge and the gun” is not cliche but more of omage at this point, this phrase is highly engrained in the concept of ” a good cop that goes against the system”, even though the phrase feels corny sometimes. I think in real life you would get paperwork done first before giving up your gun since otherwise you might get in trouble(just like pretty much any firearm currently, even ordering something like a rifle from https://gritrsports.com/shooting/firearms/ requires quite a lot of paperwork…

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  39. ryanrobbie on May 29, 2024 at 2:54 am

    By calling forth this profound, make-or-break reaction from the hero, the “All is Lost” moment is a powerful narrative device that propels the story forward in a climactic way. It challenges the hero to confront their fears, flaws, and innermost selves in order to find the resolve to push on toward resolution mapquest driving directions

    You’re absolutely right that this critical moment is not a cliche, but rather an essential storytelling technique that taps into the hero’s deepest humanity and motivations.

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