You Can’t Stand on a Broken Leg

By John Gilstrap

No movie and few books have ever gotten a structure fire right. The movie Ladder 49 was on television the other day, and like all similar movies before it—from Backdraft to Firehouse Dog—the producers created a smokeless, heatless fire that defies the laws of physics and chemistry. You can’t stand in a real structure fire. That “heat always rises” lesson you learned in high school makes standing very uncomfortable. It’s a good way to singe your ears. Visibility is zero. Truthfully, a real structure fire is not at all photogenic, which is why, of course, they film them the way they do.

But authors should know better. We don’t have to worry about lighting and lenses; we get to portray all the senses. We really have no excuse for getting it wrong.

Most movies don’t get bullet wounds right, either. In movies, they make holes that are way too big and they do far too little damage. Based on my fifteen years of fire and rescue service experience, the best movie bullet wounds—hands down—are in Saving Private Ryan. That scene where they’re treating the medic is spot-on perfect. By the way, that clichéd notion of the good guy getting shot in the shoulder and walking away is complete hooey. Take a look at the anatomy of the shoulder joint and point to me the possible path for a bullet that would not be devastating.

I read a book fairly recently where our hero broke his leg in a fall and continued to fight. (“It’s only broken,” he said.) Uh-huh. How did the author think for a moment that a person can stand on a broken leg? The point, I think, was that the character could suck up the pain. Okay, that’s fine. But if you break the bone that is part of the scaffold that keeps you standing, how the hell are you supposed to walk away and fight some more?

These are the kinds of esoteric details that make me crazy—stuff that is so easily researched, but for which some authors don’t take the time. These are the kinds of technical mistakes that eject me right out of a book.

And at this point in my diatribe, I must confess that I am a practitioner—not of laziness, but of inaccuracy. In this case, intentional inaccuracy. In the opening scene of No Mercy, Jonathan Grave crashes into a house to rescue a good guy from the clutches on two bad guys. He orders them to freeze, and then he spends a short paragraph negotiating with a bad guy to drop his weapon. I’ve heard from several of my buddies who crash doors for a living that this scene makes them crazy. The rule in the real world of tactical entries is very simple: See guy with gun, kill guy with gun.

But here was my dilemma as I wrote the scene: Since this is literally the first chapter of the first book in a series that stars a character that readers don’t yet know, I thought that the average reader would find the real-life approach to be off-putting. More like an assassination than a rescue. So I made a conscious decision to sacrifice reality for character development. I still think it was the right decision, even if it did bother a few experts.

How about you folks? Have you writers intentionally done things the “wrong way” for the sake of a better story? Are you readers forgiving of such things?


14 thoughts on “You Can’t Stand on a Broken Leg

  1. I’ve learned a few more details to look out for. Thanks. Interesting about that opening scene though. It would really change the focus written the real way.

  2. Hey now, I stood on two broken ankles for a week. Of course I had thick leather boots laced way tight…and suffered for the past twenty two years since…but it’s doable. Above boot though, not so much.

    I think we can take creative license with some facts because, just like the movies, we are required to entertain as much as be factual. Dead guys fall down in very uncool positions and tend to evacuate their bowels upon their demise. Not a cool way to portray our tough characters, good or bad, in their last moments. Therefore we take an artistic turn and make it what we want the viewer/reader/listener to see.

    On the other hand, there are some details, especially technical details of planes, cars, ships and such that we cannot get away with messing up and retain credibility.

    There has to be a bit of compromise, but not too much.

    ps john, memories of my favourite dog, a black lab, have been making me happy all evening. Thx.

  3. John,
    Regarding the scene where the protagonist doesn’t “shoot first and ask questions later,” I didn’t know that was a no-no, so I’d probably accept it. On the other hand, as a physician I strive to make medical details accurate in my novels and get bent out of shape if I see that type of inaccuracies in the work of others. Guess it’s a matter of your viewpoint and how much you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief.

  4. Ah, but what about a hairline fracture just below the patella? I walked around on one for three weeks before I knew it was broken. An x-ray didn’t show anything, and when the swelling didn’t go down, the doc ordered an MRI. Hairline fracture.

    I worked for a police department for ten years, so when writers get some of that stuff wrong, it drives me crazy. Especially if it’s bad enough to take me out of the story, or when it’s obvious the writer did all his research by watching TV.

  5. It’s worth noting that accurate doesn’t always make for interesting reading. A number of years ago, I tried writing a book about my experiences during Desert Storm. I wanted it to be very accurate, so I did things like describe in great detail the process of soldiers marching off to war. Took an entire page and was a realistic representation. But it wasn’t very interesting. In the one I’m working on now, I had to change a factual timeline (pre-exhibition viewing and auction) because the timeline was jamming up the story. I pushed it out another day so the story would work better.

    Sometimes the facts get in the way of telling a good story.

    That being said, I don’t think that’s an excuse for carelessness. Some of the factual inaccuracies I run across seem more like a lack of research rather than carelessness. Honestly, if a guy slides down a hill and crashes into a tree, how hard would it be to make the injury not too serious instead of the broken rib the writer then ignored for the rest of the book?

    Linda Adams

  6. John, this is a great follow-up to Michelle’s blog yesterday.

    I believe it’s always a good idea to not violate the laws of physics. But I also feel that the story comes first. For that reason, I’ve changed minor landmarks for the sake of time and space. And like most writers, I flat out make stuff up if it advances the story. But I do as much research as needed to support my characters and their quests.

    I was called out once for getting the color of a guided missile wrong. I had the right jet fighter, the right altitude, speed and approach. I had the correct type of missile and knew what its destructive power would be. But I got the color wrong. And someone on Amazon nailed me. So everyone out there, please open your copy of THE LAST SECRET to pages 7 and 10, and change the word “blue” to “yellow”. Thanks.

  7. I once carried two sacks of groceries ten miles through the snow with two severed legs and a bullet through my shoulder…

    I just read a book by a seasoned crime fiction author who called a fifty caliber Desert Eagle a revolver…twice. A revolver has a moving cylinder, a semi-auto has a slide and a magazine to hold cartridges or rounds (a bullet is the projectile that leaves the barrel). And he has the antagonist toss something (an ash tray, I think) into the air (in his den) and he blows it apart with this “revolver.” And nobody in the room was deaf! I left the book at that point and couldn’t get back the momentum I’d had before that first revolver scene. In my mind those misunderstandings of the weapon are just too large to dismiss with a shrug. Shoot a .38 in a closed room and your unprotected ears will ring for ages. A .50? Please. We’re talking sitting on stage with your back against a main speaker stack for two hours of a hard rock concert. Other than those things in two scenes the book was pitch perfect. Shame. And most readers probably notice or, if they do, won’t mention it.

    That book was actually good enough that I could overlook the mistakes ….more or less.

  8. If I do a less-dramatic version, I always put in some context. For example, when my TV-reporter character was sent out to cover a fire, she groaned and thought something like: “Every smoky fire looks alike. Honestly, you could use the same video for every smoky fire, and no one would be the wiser.”

  9. The author has to pick his spots. Some reader comments are just silly. (Blue or yellow missile, for example.) Some author inaccuracies are easily avoided and can take a reader right out of the story. (Using “rifle” and “shotgun” as interchangeable terms, or sending someone to prison–not jail–to await trial.)

    My rule of thumb is, the more you get right, the more easily forgivable the inevitable minor error will be. To paraphrase Garridon, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

  10. The scene as I wanted to write it:

    Good Guy leaps up onto end of bed containing Good Guy’s girlfriend’s father. Good guy has small automatic handgun. Good Guy empties magazine. But… Good Guy is shooting blanks. Goal: scare the bejabbers out of Daddy.

    Yeah, ok, I can hear the laughter from here. How was I to know automatics can’t fire blanks? The web, that’s how. Good thing I did the research first.

    I gave Good Guy a little five-shot Czech revolver, and all is well. ‘Course, he’s not to know Girlfriend loaded it with live ammo…

  11. Levi. Blanks can do a lot of harm, but can’t kill. They can blind or burn as they shoot a wadding and there can be some unused powder coming out of the barrel. You can shoot a blank in an automatic, but it won’t feed in another.

    There are also .22s that have no powder, just the primer to propel them. They only go 600 FPS and are almost silent, but will kill a small animal up close. Great for rats out of a pistol.

  12. Mr Miller;

    I did say the goal was to scare Daddy, not to kill him. Or at least that’s what Good Guy thinks.

    My point wasn’t what blanks can or cannot do to a target, only that I almost had a character “empty the magazine” of a semi-automatic firing blanks, which, without racking the slide manually, you cannot do.

    More fundamentally, my point was that this research is easy to do, even for a non-shooter, such as myself.


  13. I had a character walk with a broken hip in one story, but I talked to doctors about this and apparently it can be done, depending on the type of fracture.

    But innacuracies put you off when you are knowledgeable about a topic. I remember reading in Ted Dekker’s “Black” about a scientist looking at a virus with a light microscope. If he had done some research, he would have found out that viruses are too small to be seen with a regular microscope and that you need an atomic microscope.

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