Shoot for the Stars: Tracking Techniques in “Teen Sniper”

A write up by Maja Neal, Caroline Paden, and Ignatius Lines

Summary of “Teen Sniper” – Maja Neal

In Adam Johnson’s “Teen Sniper,” we follow a fifteen-year-old boy codenamed Blackbird who’s a sniper for his local police department in an almost pseudo-future. The story begins with him killing a man on the job, but not able to ignore the feeling that comes over him just before the shot; that he really knew his victim. Blackbird – or Tim, as is his real name – is shaken by this. He distracts himself by spending time with his fellow employees or walking around with ROMS, the department’s bomb-sniffing robot. Later, he goes to train in martial arts and spars with a girl he’s immediately infatuated with. It turns out that she’s the daughter of the department’s chief communications officer. Tim finds himself thinking about her more and more, and eventually climbs up on a satellite dish to find her house and visit her; however, he drinks cans and cans of an energy drink, and is on a caffeine high and making no sense when he does go to talk to her. The next morning, he wakes up feeling terrible, and remembers pieces of the day before, inferring he must have tangled with SWAT. He goes to the bomb shelter to visit ROMS, who he insulted the day before; but ROMS forgives him and gives him advice about what to do with the girl, Seema. The week after that is rough for Tim. Two of his coworkers and friends quit, and ROMS is killed in a blast. After a new ROMS who looks exactly like the old one arrives, Tim can’t take any more, and runs out of his building, hanging his gun – the one he’s used on dozens of missions – in a random tree and abandoning it. He then goes to visit Seema, and he partly uses the old ROMS’s advice in trying to make up for his freaky behavior the last time he visited her. As the story ends, Tim is walking away from Seema’s house, thinking to himself that he wants her to see the real him.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Technique Tracking: Caroline

The first technique I tracked was the use of optimistic/casual vocabulary in characterizing Tim. Tim mentions early on that he has trouble with “flash empathy”, or empathizing with his targets too much, and a concerned Lt. Kim is worried that being exposed to such a high-pressure, violent job at such a young age is harmful to Tim’s mental health. As a result, he uses flowers as replacement images for gore. There’s also evidence that Tim is desensitized to his situation at this point—he focuses on an Aladdin movie poster in the first scene, talking more about that than about the hostage situation unfolding before his eyes.

Tim’s inability to connect with other people well may also contribute to this. Tim doesn’t seem fully socially developed, and there are hints that this may be because of his job: “They see my rifle and know I’m a peace officer, that I’m here to help.” Throughout the story, “improving the world” is cited as Tim’s main reason for becoming a police sniper and justification for all of the violence unfolding around him. Whether it’s technology companies beautifying the world with flower displays or making the world safer by joining the force, Tim revels in optimism and positivity—even if it’s just a coping mechanism for killing multiple people as a job. These instances of off-putting or contrasting positive imagery can add to a sense of disconnect in the reader: how can killing as a job be seen in such an upbeat way? How is this so normalized? The reader questions this alongside Tim, and by the end of the story, Tim comes to the same conclusion as the reader: killing this frequently without being able to acknowledge your own empathy is unhealthy. It’s effective characterization, and worldbuilding, in its own respect.

The second technique I tracked was the instances of effective worldbuilding/hints the story is set in the future. Our first hint is the use of a soda brand that currently doesn’t exist, and the second is the fact that a fifteen-year-old is even allowed to work as a police sniper, regardless of ability. As time goes on, it’s clear that in this society, children using guns is not uncommon—in fact, even big companies like Disney sponsor shooting competitions.

The use of brands is also interesting here—obviously, Sony is a technology company, and doesn’t sell hot dogs or have modelling campaigns. Neither does Monsanto. Narrowing in on hints that this is in the future, the AOL conference that apparently ended in a huge loss of life never happened. Laws about sniping in Brazil and Switzerland, the new technology such as ROMS—all are integrated seamlessly into the story, with minimal exposition.

Johnson builds a world around the reader so effortlessly, if not for the obvious fictitiousness of it all, it would feel autobiographical. I want to be able to create an immersive universe as skilfully and as effortlessly as Johnson–I feel like I rely too much on exposition sometimes to create a realistic setting, and it ends up detracting from the story.

Acute Tension: Tim’s fight with ROMS

Chronic Tension: Tim’s struggle with flash empathy

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the optimistic vocabulary contribute to a sense of unease in the reader?
  2. What effect do you think was intended in the mixing up of brands?


Techniques Tracked:

  • The way in which the author made the protagonist’s mental state deteriorate when he chugged like six energy drinks
  • The “spiraling” of the protagonist’s thoughts in every other part of the story

“Teen Sniper” is about a kid who’s under a lot of stress for reasons like and unlike the ones we ourselves experience – so it’s pretty apparent that his mental state is a little whack. Part of this is because of his almost-dependence on a certain brand of energy drink, and the tendency of his mind to blow up small events and go on spiraling and internal trains of thought. Both of those facts make big appearances in the plot of the story, and I’ll be tracking them both.


No lie, I love this bit of the story. It’s a great example of how to write a character slowly becoming delirious. At this point, our protag, Tim, is high above Palo Alto on a huge satellite dish, scanning the town with the scope of his sniper rifle to find the house of the girl he likes. As he does this, he begins to down cans of a new brand of energy drink, and as he’s almost finished a whole six-pack of them, he spots the girl’s house. He then rappels down the dish and jogs through the neighborhood looking for her. It’s at this point that you can really start to see his brain going off-track, with rambling statements, nonsensical questions, and run-on sentences.

I find myself jogging, and it’s like I’m wearing headphones that only play static. There’s a silver fire hydrant, and for no reason I go up and kick it. I’m running along, turning into her neighborhood, and have you ever taken a good look at your hand, I mean really stared at it?

The energetic and confusing train of thought gets even more rushed as Tim talks to his crush, Seema. In fact, he rambles for such a long time I’m not even going to put that paragraph in this evaluation. He goes on and on, until Seema’s father, a man who works with Tim, tells him to leave. After Tim downs his last energy drink, we cut to him waking up on the lawn of the police station, with next to no idea how he got there.

The point of including those sentences is that they demonstrate so well how to write a delirious character. Start peppering the character’s thoughts with unnecessary details, unrelated phrases, jumps from one topic to another, and heightened awareness of their surroundings.


The whole energy drink scene is only one part of how the author writes Tim’s inner monologues so well. Now I’ll track a huge and effectively done part of Tim’s thoughts; how he can spiral until one thing leads to him thinking of something completely different.

Tim, working as a sniper at a very young age, obviously isn’t in the best mental state. This is maybe part of the reason that he seems to take a small fact and go on and on with it until he has a whole monologue in his head – like what he did with the paragraph where he rambles to Seema while under the influence of all his Buzz drinks. Here’s what I think is one of the best examples of his spiraling.

Then it hits me, this feeling that I really know this guy. In the rinsed color of my video scope, I study the tinselly lines of sweat coming from his brow, the flush of anguish in his skin. In a flash, I see a guy who left his culture and traveled around the world, only to become a hopeless outcast. His words are always a little off, and maybe people make fun of him because he looks different and can’t dress so good. Forget about the girls. It’s, like, because of your job, you have to leave your old friends behind, and then your new friends are always saying things to keep you down. You work side by side with them, and you’re really trying, but it’s like you’re not even there. They never ask you to lunch or anything. Sometimes you eat alone at a restaurant and spot one of them, but they don’t even see you. You overhear them talking about some new movie, and it’s a movie you want to see, and–I stop myself, try to get a grip. Like the L.A.P.D. says, this isn’t real.

The “flash empathy” that Tim has been trying so desperately to avoid hits him hard, and he begins to imagine every little aspect of his target’s life. Note how he gets more and more detailed, especially with how the man is treated; he begins imagining specific scenarios, and obviously connects with the idea of the man and the unfortunate life he imagines the man has.

This happens multiple other times; what I’ve highlighted is when Tim first meets Seema and shortly imagines what Brazil must be like, when he ruminates on what it’s like to be one of the people he shoots, when he’s looking for her on the satellite dish and starts picturing what she’s doing at the moment, and when he imagines what she must be like as a person. All of these scenes are effective at establishing Tim as somebody who tends to blow things out of proportion.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Discussion Questions:

  • Does the author make clear why Tim might be feeling the way he is now? In other words, does he give a possible explanation for his emotional awkwardness but sudden bouts of flash empathy?
  • What details does Johnson throw in to make Tim’s character obviously that of a teenage boy?


Techniques tracked:

  • Use of slang and “relatable” teen scenarios combined with depressing dystopian concepts that would be viewed as horrifying today
  • Tim’s commitment to the fact that empathy he rightfully feels to people he hurts or stands by as they are hurt is not normal and he should not feel it

It is made very clear in the story that this is not a normal world. Fifteen year olds are allowed to be snipers, torture is seen as fairly normal, and violent attacks happen on a much more frequent basis than normal. Instead of presenting these ideas as dystopian and alien, we are shown them through the lens of Tim, who seems to be very familiar with this world and sees these things as normal. He acts like a normal, hormonal weird angsty teenage boy who just happens to snipe and kill people on the regular. This creates an interesting contrast for the audience, who finds these things disturbing, because it portrays these things to be almost as normal as going to a 9 to 5 job or going to school. In the first scene where he is aiming at the man in the tech building we are shown this by the fact he acts like an angsty hormonal teen by stating to himself that his Lieutenant needs to “like, get of my back already” while he is preparing to heartlessly slaughter a man. Later on he starts to try and approach a girl and make a move on her while he is in the same room as a man being tortured.

It is also made clear that the main character lacks empathy, or when he has it he intentionally tries to snuff it out due to the L.A.P.D. convincing him that this is his brain playing tricks on him. As said before in the first scene he mentions this while aiming at the poor man (who seemed to have not hurt anyone yet) before promptly convincing himself he should not be feeling this and shooting him. In the aforementioned torture scene, he uses air quotes around the word “suspect” almost as if to say the man being tortured was not human, or not innocent in any way. This obviously makes the reader uncomfortable, but also makes us think about the state of things today

Chronic tension: Tim being lonely and depressed because of the combination of his career and peers but not knowing it

Acute tension: Tim having the chance to be friends with someone and have a real social life but nearly floundering it

Discussion questions:

  • How does the dystopian setting contribute to the theme. Is it easily ignorable part of a love story or is it the focal point?
  • Is the main character’s empathy truly real? Or made up?



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