Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Egregious Gunplay . . .

by Sean Chercover

As writers of crime fiction, we write a lot about guns. So you’d think we’d know a lot about 'em. I’m sorry to say that as a profession, we often indulge in egregious gunplay that defies all laws of physics and, for that matter, good common sense. And when we do this, we jerk many readers (those who know anything about guns) out of the fictional universe we’ve worked so hard to create, and we rudely deny them the ability to continue suspending their disbelief.

So, in an effort to make the world a better place, I’m offering a few tips about how to deal with guns in your writing.

Let’s be clear - although I used to carry a gun for work, I am not a ‘gun nut’, nor would I call myself a gun expert. And I’m not suggesting that you need to become an expert, either. But there are some things that you need to know.

1. If you’re not willing to learn at least a little bit about guns, then follow Chandler’s advice, and just call every gun “a gun,” and offer NO other details.

2. If you must go into detail, do the damned research. A semi-auto is not an automatic. A magazine is not a clip. A bullet is not a round . . . etc. I mean, this ain’t rocket surgery . . . brain science . . . whatever.

3. People do not fly backward through the air when they are shot. They just don’t. So knock it off with the people flying through the air. It’s stupid, no matter how many times you saw it in a Steven Segal movie. Truth is, most people who are shot don’t even know they’re shot, right away. Not only do they not fly backward through the air, most times they don’t even fall down for a while. They’re in shock, and it takes a minute before they realize they’ve been hit. Movie nonsense aside, if a bullet were able to send someone flying backward, then the shooter would also be sent flying by the recoil. Action-reaction. Laws of physics. Get it? Good.

4. Don’t “check your load.” You know the drill: The cop (or PI, or thief, or whomever) is about to go into a dangerous situation. So he flips his revolver open and “checks his load.” What the hell is this? Could it be that the rounds he fed into the gun when he loaded it that morning magically evaporated? I mean, really. Why the hell would he “check his load”? Stop it. It’s ridiculous, unless you intend the reader to think that your protagonist is mentally challenged.

5. Stop “jacking a round into the chamber.” This is the pistol equivalent of “checking your load.” What made you think this was a cool thing for tough guys to do? Oh, yeah, those Steven Segal movies. Right. If your character is a professional (PI, cop, or professional bad guy) then s/he will most likely carry in Condition One. Which means, a round in the chamber, safety on. There’s no reason to jack the slide, since there’s already a round in the chamber. Yes, there are pistols that you don’t carry in this manner, but even then, stop “jacking a round into the chamber” for dramatic effect. You’re driving us crazy with that crap, and it’s a cheap substitute for real tension.

6. Guns are loud. If you fire a gun without ear protection on (especially indoors), your ears will ring and everything will sound muffled and you will probably talk too loud for a few days. Fire a gun in a car with the windows closed, and you will suffer permanent hearing loss.

7. When shot, people do not usually die. In fact, over 80% of gunshot victims survive.

8. And when they do die, they don’t die instantly, in the vast majority of cases. So, stop making your victims drop instantly dead, as soon as they are shot. Unless it is a perfect head- or heart-shot with a large-caliber bullet, they’re gonna stagger around for a bit.

9. And when they are shot in the shoulder, they suffer for a long time and need major surgery and may not regain the use of that arm. All the nerves that feed the arm go through the shoulder joint, and there’s a pretty big artery going through that joint, as well. I know many of us grew up in the '70s, when Starsky (or Hutch, or Mannix, or whomever) would take a bullet to the shoulder and be fine next week. Not like that in real life. So if you need your hero to take a relatively inconsequential bullet, have him take it in the buttocks.

These are but a few examples of Egregious Gunplay that drive me nuts. I’ll probably offer more in a future Outfit post, but for now I’ve ranted enough, and it is now your turn to vent.

Wait . . . I just got off the phone with my friend Michael Black (who is not only a cop, but also an author you should read) and he gave me a few of his pet peeves:
1. When a semi-auto is out of bullets, the slide locks open. So don’t have a character repeatedly pulling the trigger on a pistol that has run out of ammo.

2. Glocks are misrepresented in many ways. Here are a few things to know about Glocks: They are not invisible to metal detectors. The striker is inside; there is no external hammer to cock. They do not have manual safeties that you can engage or disengage.

3. Revolvers do not have manual safeties, either.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What details drive you nuts? Not necessarily about guns, but about anything? What details do writers fake or ignore or generally get wrong, that kill your suspension of disbelief?


Anonymous said...

Hey Sean,

I totally respect what you're saying. I remember in a writing workshop a woman turned in a story in which a character went into a gunfight with a ".385 Magnum." She'd clearly pulled a number out of her butt, thinking it didn't matter.

But ... well ...

Frankly, I have to stick up for people being blown backward and other dramatic things which make a fictional gunfight fun. Frankly, I have little use for realism in fiction. And I'm speaking as a reader (or viewer where films are concerned.) An example: in the last few years I found the film KILL BILL quite enjoyable. When Uma is slicing through dozens of masked gang ninjas, at no time does "realism" enter the equation for me. Nor do I think Quentin was making a mistake out of ignorance. Rather, he made an artistic choice to go for spectacle over realism. Many people disliked this choice. I wasn't one of them.

Someone who has a professional relationship with firearms might naturally notice when authors "get it wrong." Perhaps this is like NASA scientists who can't enjoy Star Trek because warp drive is silly.

Just another point of view.

Victor Gischler

Sean Chercover said...

Hey Victor,

I love Kill Bill, and I have no problem with warp drive.

I also have no problem with people flying backwards when shot, if that is a conscious choice, and if that is not the ONLY law of physics which is broken in the book. Say, the characters can do other cool 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' stuff (as they do in Kill Bill) or even turn into cartoons (as they do in Kill Bill) then I'm cool with it. I get that the author has made an aesthetic choice and I'm signing on for a ride in a universe that doesn't play by the same rules as the one I live in.

But if the entire novel plays by the rules of our universe - people can only run as fast and jump as high as they do in real life, etc. - and THEN they go flying through the air when shot, it's a problem. For me.

It's like a painter who consciously chooses to take me into an impressionistic world. I love that. But if you're trying to paint a realistic world, and then you screw up on one thing, it stands out and calls attention to itself (in a bad way). To me.

Warp drive is cool because it is but one of about a bazillion unrealistic-but-fun things in the show. Like Kill Bill, you either sign on for the ride, or don't.

Sara N Paretsky said...

Sean, what a great post. I'm sure I'm one of the prime offenders, even though Michael Black kindly took me shooting a few years back, with a target I got to label with the name of my then boss. I wonder what I'd call it today? Hmm--nope, that would get me arrested. Anyway, I'll bookmark this and try to get V I shot in the butt if she needs some r&r.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Sean sort of beat me to this while I was fixing typos but I'll try it anyway.

That's certainly true to a point, Victor. But each novel sets its own standard for realism. I'm going to misquote this (and it probably deserves another post) but George Saunders talks about three levels of realism in fiction. One is fantasy which is Uma slicing through Ninjas. One is strict realism, which is a Raymond Carver story or maybe an Ed McBain novel. Most fiction is probably the third kind, which works the spectrum in between. When we were talking about this recently my friend John Warner said his favorite example for his students is The West Wing. That show represented itself as the world we live in, but nobody really talks like the characters in a Sorkin drama. Not ever. Mamet either.

Tarantino's reference points in Kill Bill were not real life, but other movies. If a movie hero has ever done something ridiculous, you can be sure a Tarantino hero will be ten times more absurd. And it's awesome. There's joy in it. On the other hand, when he was making Jackie Brown (an incredibly underrated film and one based on an Elmore Leonard novel) he really stuck faithfully to Leonard's real world. He got his details right. Pam Grier would have gotten her ass kicked by a shoolgirl ninja army.

Likewise, I think most crime novelists strive for a kind of Noir realism when it comes to the details Sean is talking about. When we get them wrong (I've been guilty of this, too) it is usually because of ignorance or sloppiness and not because we were going for some effect.

Thriller novelists will frequently work the area in between. James Rollins is the king of taking some real life thing (like liquid body armor in Map of Bones) and imagining applications that are far beyond the current possibilities. But it's believable (and enjoyable) in the half-fantasy worlds he creates. Body armor that allows you to set Olympic records in the hurdles while still repelling bullets like Iron Man would be a lot less believable (and a lot less enjoyable) in Rum Punch.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Hey, sorry, but I agree with Kevin. It makes me crazy when a person gets shot with a pellet that weighs very little and he flies backward like he'd been struck by a cannonball. And by the way, as Sean says, there is recoil. Cannons move backward on tracks to absorb the recoil.

Fantasy is a whole 'nother thing, of course.

David Thayer said...

Sean, Great post and I do agree that crime novelists can undermine a good story with gun gaffes, but it's equally dangerous to cram too much detail into scenes, the full catalogue so to speak.
There was a bank robbery in Zaire many years ago where the robbers used an old Saracen battle tank to crash through the front door. They rolled through the lobby blasted open the vault but wound up trapped by debris. No reverse gear in a Saracen, apparently, nowhere to go but forward.

Sean Chercover said...

I agree that too much gun detail is, um...too much. Chandler's option of just calling every gun "a gun" is a perfectly valid way to go.

If you do choose to go into specifics, a little detail goes a long way. But what detail you do give, should at least be accurate.

Great story about the bank robbery. Thanks.

Carolyn said...

This is what I call really useful advice! Thanks, Sean. I'm not only bookmarking this entry but printing it out for my files.

Anonymous said...

Sean invited:
Okay, now it’s your turn. What details drive you nuts? Not necessarily about guns, but about anything? What details do writers fake or ignore or generally get wrong, that kill your suspension of disbelief?

What drives me bonkers is being told every street name and turn and important building, etc., the characters pass as they move around. I feel like the author is trying to either dazzle me with his/her brilliance or prove that he/she did her homework. Can't you convey place -- and character's knowledge of place -- by some other technique than route instructions?

Jude Hardin said...

Hi Sean,

Great post. I think you're mostly right on, and these things drive me nuts too.

However, I knew a guy who took a gut shot from a .22 pistol in a poolroom fight, and he said it felt like being hit by a sledgehammer. He didn't go airborne, of course, but it did knock him backward a few feet before he fell. So I believe that happens at least some of the time.

My friend spent several months in the hospital with a colostomy and a feeding tube. Nasty little .22 short.

Sean Chercover said...

Hey Jude,

Here's the deal: A guy once brained me with a rock and I was knocked unconscious. When I hit the pavement, it felt like I was landing on a soft, fluffy pillow. That was my subjective experience. But the pavement did not really become suddenly soft.

And with all due respect to your friend, the laws of physics did not change for him, either, regardless of his memory of his subjective experience. Perhaps his abdominal and leg muscles spasmed at once, and he staggered back in a single jerking motion that felt like being knocked back, but it is physically impossible for a .22 bullet to knock a person back. The laws of physics are very stubborn that way.

I hope your friend has fully recovered.

Jude Hardin said...

Good point, Sean. But isn't it those subjective experiences that help our fictional characters come to life on the page? If someone sees a gun pointed at them from five feet away, sees the muzzle flash, hears the blast, wouldn't it be natural to stagger backwards, even if the gun was loaded with blanks? We're not talking about shooting into a bag of sand here.

If you're sitting at a library table, and I sneak up behind you and pop a balloon, I bet your body is going to move. You might even fall out of the chair.

If I'm standing a few feet away from you, with a baseball in my hand, and wind up and pretend to throw at you with all my might, are you just going to stand there like a cardboard cutout? Nope. Just the suggestion of impact is going to make you tense up and move.

So, I don't have a problem when fictional characters SEEM as though they were pushed backwards by a bullet's impact. Even though the bullet didn't actually push them, it's a likely and natural reaction.

And it's always better if they happen to be standing in front of a window. ;)

Sean Chercover said...

Yes, and after they fly through the plate glass window, they don't have a cut on them. Another one of those things that authors have adopted after watching too much bad television.

I'm not against writing from a hyper-subjective point-of-view... "the bullet hit me so hard that I flew through the air and landed in the next zip code." ..."the pavement became a soft mattress and I dove into bed, eager for sleep." Whatever. All good.

And if you're creating a surreal or expressionistic fictional universe, (a la Kill Bill) that's also valid choice.

But, if you are going for realism, don't suspend the laws of physics just so people fly through the air when shot, or leap through plate glass windows without getting cut.

To say (in an otherwise realistic novel), "the force of the bullet sent him flying back through the window," or, "the bullet slammed him into the wall," is just bad writing, IMO.

Jude Hardin said...

I concur.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

By the way (and meaning no disrespect to your friend, Jude, becuse I hear it all the time but), I always love when someone describes being shot in the chest as like being "hit with a two-by-four" or being "hit with a sledgehammer."

I'm always like, jeez when were you hit with a sledgehammer?

I think it's easier for me to imagine what it would be like to be shot than what it would be like for someone to swing a giant iron hammer into my sternum.

Anonymous said...

This article is pretty much on the money, although I did have 2 problems with what you said:

"Don’t “check your load.” You know the drill: The cop (or PI, or thief, or whomever) is about to go into a dangerous situation. So he flips his revolver open and “checks his load.” What the hell is this? Could it be that the rounds he fed into the gun when he loaded it that morning magically evaporated? I mean, really. Why the hell would he “check his load”? Stop it. It’s ridiculous, unless you intend the reader to think that your protagonist is mentally challenged." - I find this point a bit dubious to be honest. If you were going into a gunfight wouldn't you want to make sure you had bullets in your weapon? I mean, I know the protagonist might be 99% sure that he put those bullets in that morning, but he would still take the time to check just in case. Well, I know I would - it takes like two seconds to do after all! Kinda like when you can't quite remember if you locked your front door or not; I always go back and check if I have even the slightest doubt that I might not have done.

My second point is that not all semi automatics have slides that lock back when the magazine is empty. The newer ones usually do, but I believe I'm right in saying that the Colt 1911's slide returns forward as normal after the last round is fired (well, that's true for the standard 1911 anyway).

Anonymous said...

"...but I believe I'm right in saying that the Colt 1911's slide returns forward as normal after the last round is fired (well, that's true for the standard 1911 anyway)."

You are absolutely wrong.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to whine about people not doing their research, and about using terms like "bullets" and "rounds" interchangeably, then do research of your own.

Someone who has just been shot is not "in shock". Being in shock has nothing to do with realizing anything.

Shock is a circulatory condition whereby blood fails to perfuse the vital organs.

1. If you're not willing to learn at least a little bit about medicine, then follow my advice, and just call every injury "an injury" and offer NO other details.

Doesn't feel so great to have your own words spat back at you, does it, smart guy?

Anonymous said...

That's "circulatory shock", which is often just called "shock", but there are other kinds as well, such as "psychological shock".


Anonymous said...

If there's anything that bothers me, it's when reloading open-bolt weapons. You NEVER pull the charging handle BEFORE reloading. Only after. Weapon fires open bolt, so the last thing you want to do when you're reloading the weapon is to have it ready to fire. In real life, we de-cock the machine-gun. When the last round is fired the bolt locks shut. So the bolt is closed DRY. Then we replace the belt feed, THEN cock the gun.

Even in film, you need to re-cock the gun. It still sounds awesome, as far as movies go.

You know what? If you're going for a machine-gun scene, don't reload it. Cock it once for dramatic effect and then play off "bottomless box magazine."

Noah said...

Silencers and suppressors do lessen the sound of a firearm, but not nearly as much as Hollywood would have you think. While they do reduce the sound by a few decibels, ear-protection is still very much recommended, and the overall purpose is to reduce the distance the sound travels.

Kamil Drakari said...

I honestly don't know if the comments section or this article has been left for years or days, but I have some contributions. Specifically, I have fired semi-automatic guns where the slide doesn't lock open and revolvers which have a safety. I can't say whether these were actually weapons used for any sort of combat whether military or law enforcement (they were both just rentals at a firing range so I don't know much else about them) but they do exist.

As for what bothers me most, when a machine gun without ammo (or, you know, any automatic weapon really) repeatedly clicks while the trigger is held. The only firing mechanisms which I am aware of that are even capable of attempting to fire more than once without ammunition are both silent (at least on that level) and computer-controlled; with the possible exception of miniguns which I am not entirely familiar with. Needless to say that not all examples of this were miniguns.

Zetzu said...

I stumbled across this post and liked it quite a bit, figured I'd put in my point of view from someone who both writes, and deals with guns as part of his every day life thanks to being in the military.

@ "Don't check your load"
I agree with this entirely, being in the military and having to carry a weapon I can promise you that when you carry in the line of duty you probably do so in Condition one, which means magazine in the gun, round in the chamber, safety on. Now the argument of 'just checking to be sure because of the locking your front door effect' I only have this to say. The procedure for any professional to get their gone to condition one is not something you can ever forget to do, it is observed by a witness, signed off on, and done as soon as you get your weapon with no chance of walking away with a weapon accidently in condition three (where the gun has the safty on, magazine in the gun, but no round in the chamber)

As for people 'cocking the gun' before a fire-fight, I can see that going either way. Many military watches have you carry the weapon in condition three which means you do not have a round in the chamber and you have to cock the weapon if you plan to use it, I also know while patrol officers keep a condition one weapon, most detectives carry it in three so they too would have to cock the weapon like you see in the movies.

@ Belt-fed machine guns
I agree completely, use the bottomless ammo thing after the first dramatic cocking of the weapon just because in reality I know that a lot of the times we will link multiple ammo can's together so that one the first empties the belt just pulls seamlessly into the next so we don't need to reload. On top of that there is only a handful of things which will make those repeated clicks after the ammo is gone, and they are things which use an electric motor to pull back the firing pin, such as most mini-guns and a few very select other ones. However don't think that any kind of CWIS weapon would do this, they are fired by an charge of electrical voltage.

@ Knock back
There is only three types of unmounted weapons that will cause the kind of knock back which will force someone off their feet (not talking about muscle spasms or anything). The first is any kind of recoil-less rifle, these things have an extremely strong punch and doesn't fling the person back because it uses the expanding gasses to offset the recoil, though you won't see these often in most places in the world. The other two are a .50 cal rifle which uses a floating barrel and muzzle breaks to lessen the recoil a lot and the round will not only knock someone off their feet, but turn a large portion of their body into insubstantial mush...if one flies inches past your characters face they are probably dead too from the shockwave much the same as if a concussion grenade went off close by. The next is a 25mm, which is a round the size of a grown mans fist, designed for anti tank use though used for extreme sniping at times.

Just my two cents...bookmarked none the less.

Anonymous said...

#4 is wrong. It's pretty standard to check the chamber of your arm when you perform a safety check.

Second #1 is wrong. Not all pistols have an automatic slide hold-open.

Second #2 is wrong. There are many aftermarket manual safeties for Glocks. Some police departments even mandate them.

Second #3 is wrong. While not common, manual safety revolvers do exist.