Writing Crime Scenes

I used to wonder what makes talented writers lose their grip the moment they try to portray physical aggression. They’ve been moving the story along beautifully, with convincing characters in gripping, realistic situations. Then suddenly, at the first hint of violence, something comes over them, and reality goes right out the window.

Now, a few hundred book edits later, I have a better understanding of the blunders that happen whenever the story takes a dark turn. It makes sense. For most of us, violence just isn’t part of our everyday experience, so we have trouble picturing it the way it really is. We don’t think like criminals, so our fictive crimes are apt to have holes in their logic that keep them from working as well as the rest of the story. To keep these problems from creeping into your story, here are a few things to remember.

The crime has to make sense.

I once had a best-selling author try to kill one of his characters with carbon monoxide poisoning by filling the house with natural gas while the victim slept. The problem: there is no carbon monoxide in natural gas! We reworked the crime to make it believable, but it would have been a glaring mistake had it gone to print.

Only slightly more plausible is a scene, in one of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade novels, where the bad guy kills somebody by throwing a knife. Never mind what we’ve seen Johnny Weissmuller do to countless bad guys, and the occasional leopard or lion, on the old Tarzan shows.

The fact is, getting a projectile that is whirling end over end to stick in a target-in a fatal spot, no less-would be quite a trick even if the target promised to stand really still. And in an action situation, forget it. My point? The crime has to be plausible—the reader must be able to imagine it happening in real life. Fail in this, and you’ve lost the reader, maybe for good.

There’s no safety catch on a revolver

This will sound extreme, but if you want to write a story with guns in it, first go out and shoot a gun. You need to heft the weight of it in your hands, feel the kick, hear the bang (with proper ear protection, of course), and see what the bullet does to whatever it hits. In fact, if you haven’t been around guns much, take a firearms safety course-even if you don’t intend to own or shoot a gun ever again. Think of it as a small investment in your writing career. After all, if you’ve never handled, loaded, and fired a small arm of any kind, how in the world do you expect your characters to?

You can’t fake it—your characters will bust themselves in any of a hundred ways: in how they carry, hide, brandish, talk about, or even thinkabout guns. And anyone who’s been around firearms will spot it.

I can’t list all the glaring errors that I’ve seen experienced professional writers make, but here are three that come to mind, all from highly acclaimed novelists:

  • James A. Michener’s best-seller Texas: a Colt cavalry revolver with a safety catch.
  • Peter Matthiessen’s splendid novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord: another of those rare six-shooters equipped with a safety catch.
  • Peter Matthiessen’s novel Bone by Bone: a shotgun that always throws one pellet high and left. How this can be when the shell is full of little round pellets packed in no particular order, and is then loaded into the gun just as randomly, is nothing short of mystifying. (I love Matthiessen, by the way, despite his inexperience with firearms.)

People who have been around guns laugh uproariously when they see this stuff. Of course, it’s part of an editor’s (particularly a copy editor’s) job to catch such spectacular errors before they get into print, but as you can see, the author had best not leave it to chance. Without naming names, here are some other gun facts I’ve had to explain to authors:

  • No one can stick their finger into a bullet hole in a car body and determine that the shot came from an AK-47.
  • You can’t tell a .30-06 rifle by the sound it makes when fired.
  • Unless your character is named Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, he can’t shoot the gun out of someone’s hand.

These are easily avoidable mistakes if you have even a basic familiarity with firearms. The next best thing: have a friend who knows guns.

Your characters must be mortal.

Despite what we’ve seen in a thousand action movies, anyone who has been in a bad fight or taken a hard fall is hurt. Even if they’re young and fit, they don’t just bounce back the next day or the next scene-healing takes time. Yes, you may want a protagonist who can take a punch, but she can’t be running about with an open fracture, two cracked ribs, and a concussion. These are not Marvel Comics superheroes; they’re flesh-and-bone humans.

And nothing kills the dramatic tension like having your character withstand bullets and bludgeonings and arterial bleeding long enough to swim the English Channel in a full gale. The human body is a pretty flimsy affair; you can’t break it and expect it to keep going. Keep your characters mortal, and we will believe them. And remember: only John Wayne can keep on fighting and save the day after he’s taken a .44 round in the shoulder.

Next time: “Hand-to-hand Combat: Keeping It Real”

Book Editing Associates
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