Nothing turns me off faster as a reader than coming across a passage that is so farfetched that it strains credulity. Now, I’m willing to give most authors the benefit of the doubt, and tolerate a bit of dramatic liberties and literary license, but there is a line of credibility that has to be drawn. To keep it real, you should at least make an attempt to think things through and make them plausible. It’s incumbent upon the author to do a little research. Many will say it’s “the writer’s right to make things up” since it is, after all, a work of fiction. To a certain extent, I agree, but you should be cognizant of crossing that fine line that pushes your work from the believable to the absurd.
I grew up reading comic books and thrilled to the adventures of Superman, Batman, and other superheroes, but once I matured to a certain level, I began to see their extraordinary exploits as laughable. It was like watching one of those Chinese, chop-socky movies. The hero leaps thirty feet, whirls and kicks five or six bad guys in their faces, lightly lands on his feet, blocks a sword thrust with his palms, and catches a bullet in his teeth. Is it entertaining? I suppose if you like that type of action it is.
But is it real?
Having spent time in the military and practically my entire adult life in law enforcement, I know a little bit about weapons and tactics. I’ve also been involved in the martial arts since age eleven, and have probably been in more physical confrontations than the average writer. So when I read an action scene involving fighting or firearms, if the writer stretches it too far it immediately takes me out of the flow of the story. I try to imbue my action scenes with a bit of reality. No thirty foot jumps for my heroes.
Sometimes these inaccuracies indicate shoddy research. I’ll use the examples of two bestselling authors, who shall remain nameless, who made glaring errors in their books. One described a scene where a tough copper sticks his pistol under the bad guy’s chin and cocks back the hammer for emphasis. It was a neat scene, except that the author had previously referred to this gun as a Glock. Now Glocks are very popular with a lot of law enforcement types, but they also have the distinction of having an internal striker rather than a traditional hammer. While the line sounded cool, anyone who’s ever handled a Glock knew that “thumbing back the hammer” would be physically impossible. There is no hammer.
Another author wrote himself into a corner by having the bad guy get the drop on the hero at the climax. This is pretty standard fare, and I was eager to see how the good guy would escape. The villain was holding a Beretta semi-automatic pistol, which the hero had previously seen and recalled that the weapon had been stored with the magazine fully loaded. He thus concluded that the magazine spring would be worn out due to the constant tension and the weapon would misfire. He then proceeded to disarm the villain whose gun failed to work.
Should I mention that this presumption is totally ridiculous, or did you already come to that conclusion?
And how was the hero was able to definitively recognize that particular weapon in the crook’s hand at that crucial moment? I mean, One Beretta 92F looks pretty much like another 92F because they’re made that way. To his credit, this author freely admits in interviews that he makes stuff up as he goes along because it is, after all, called “fiction writing.” Yeah, but if you’re going to writing something that implausible you should call it “science fiction.” I can think of another name for it: shoddy research.
This author’s fight scenes are equally implausible. Now I’m not advocating going out and picking a fight with someone to get insight, but don’t watch some choreographed, sped-up movie version of Batman taking on half a dozen foes and think that’s the way it is in real life. Real life, anything goes street fights usually don’t last as long as they do in the movies and they hurt a lot more.
Not that every writer needs to be an expert on guns or fighting, but at least make an effort to talk to someone who can tell you if your clever plot twist would work in real life. My buddy Doug Allyn calls “bulletproofing your story.” It may take a little more time and effort to get it right, but as readers grow in sophistication, they tend to expect more from a writer.
I’m not claiming that I never make mistakes in my writing. I do, but I make an effort to do as much proper research as I can. Nelson DeMille, in his new book The Panther, mentions that he did an enormous amount of research on Yemen and anti-terrorist operations. Yet, he also mentions there were times when he took some artistic liberties with the plot. I read the book and thought it was great, and the parts that were a bit stretched didn’t bother me at all because they were integral to the story. We are writing fiction, and not real life. But Mr. DeMille knows exactly how far to stretch the taffy before it breaks.
For me, one of the most egregious violations occurred in a recent movie that was set during World War II. In the movie an American special operations team infiltrates Nazi Germany, butchering Germans and eventually kills Hitler. While it’s certainly possible that such an operation could have been considered or attempted, historically speaking, it just didn’t happen that way. I feel to portray actual history with such blatant incorrectness is a disservice to those who actually fought and died in WW II. This particular director’s movies are often filled with deliberate erroneous depictions of actual history and accompanying anachronisms as well. In interviews he makes no apologies for them. It hasn’t hurt his box office appeal, but what does that say about the taste of some of our movie goers? And sadly, many of them might see this movie and think it really happened that way. If you want to see two good movies that develop tremendous suspense but stay in the framework of actual historical events try The Eagle Has Landed and Day of the Jackal (The first version with Edward Fox, not the Bruce Willis version).
Like I said, that fine line exists, and you have to know how far you can stretch it before you lose all credibility with your audience or your reader.