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?