Have Gun? Won’t Travel.

Films and TV shows have been getting grittier and more nuanced in the last decade. Even superhero films like The Dark Knight have taken the plunge. Campiness is over. We want to feel like what we’re watching could really happen. However, in many of these stories, there are plot holes both minor and major that are glossed over by viewers and critics alike. I understand what a challenge it can be to balance the realism with storytelling momentum. The question is, when does it reaching the breaking point?

I don’t have a problem with unlikely events or million-to-one chance occurrences. Those can actually happen. Just look at Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson. I’m talking about more mundane and prosaic details that don’t fit in the real world as we understand it. As an author I spend a lot of time thinking how important it is to maintain realism in thrillers.

Adhering to realism may be less a problem if you’re writing a mystery or police procedural. I don’t think Michael Connelly has any trouble keeping the story elements close to what detectives actually do for their jobs. But I write big adventures with huge action set pieces and world-threatening stakes. I strive to keep my plots in the realm of plausibility, though the combination of events would be extremely unlikely. To me, that’s what makes a story worth telling: a scenario that would almost never happen.

Yet I still want to believe the story—that if these people were thrust into this situation, it might actually turn out the way the story is told. That’s true whether I’m the creator or consumer of the tale. It should feel real.

Realism for its own sake, however, can be super boring. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Castle would take forever if the police had to wait for DNA testing to come back in the amount of time it takes in the real world (months) instead of TV time (hours). On TV, captains get impatient if it takes more than two days to bring in the killer, but in the real world it can take weeks or months to gather enough evidence to make an arrest, if they ever do. And the DNA evidence on TV is always exact and decisive, to the point that actual prosecutors now have to routinely remind juries that such evidence is rarely definitive. Many viewers don’t understand that we simply accept these unrealistic accelerated timetables so that we can get to the good parts of the story.

The blockbuster action-adventure movies seem to get away with bigger plot hand-waving. You won’t find a bigger James Bond fan than I am, but I’m perplexed that for fifty years Bond has flown around the world with his trusty Walther PPK pistol. How? It’s never explained why he can breeze through airport security carrying a loaded weapon in his luggage. Is it plastic? Does he have diplomatic immunity? Does he pay off the TSA agents? Never mind that he’s a member of the British Secret Service who tells just about everyone he meets what his real name is. The real secret is how he isn’t nabbed by authorities the minute he gets off the plane.

In The Dark Knight,the Joker stuffs two ferries with hundreds of drums of explosives. When did he find time for that? How did the crew overlook them? And how does the Joker roam around Gotham City with that hideous makeup on and no one ever notices him?

In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds a large cache of weapons and technology in a railcar outside of Moscow. Every law enforcement agency on the planet is looking for him and his team for blowing up the Kremlin, yet he shows up in Dubai a day later with the full load of guns and ammo in a hotel suite. The audience is just expected to accept that Hunt has a way to smuggle all of that contraband thousands of miles while on the run from the authorities.

I wonder whether novels are held to a higher standard than other media when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I don’t think a novelist could get away with those kinds of plot holes without being called on them by readers. I think the difference is in how the media are consumed. When you’re watching a movie, it doesn’t give you time to think about the plot holes until it’s finished, and by then you’ve already formed your opinion about whether or not you liked it. But it takes six to ten hours or more to read a book, sometimes over the course of weeks. The reader has plenty of time to think about potential plot holes, and if they’re glaring they may even make the reader put the book down for good. On the other hand, a movie has to be pretty bad for me to stop watching halfway through (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin).

The acceptance of plot holes may also have to do with how we use our imaginations in the different media. With TV and movies, the visuals and sounds are supplied for you in a constant stream, and we accept them as the reality of the story. However, with novels we generate all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our minds. Creating all of them from scratch requires effort on our part, and if they don’t fit into the logic of the story, it becomes much more noticeable. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been able to convince readers that Indiana Jones rode on top of a submarine for two days to that island where the Ark was taken if it were a book? In the movie we see a diving montage and a map sequence showing a 500-mile trip, but due to selective editing Indy is ready to beat up Nazis as soon as they come into port—starvation, thirst, and hypothermia be damned (not to mention holding his breath for two days).

Without those quick cuts in a novel, readers would have the time and imagination to realize Indy isn’t Aquaman. That’s why I put plenty of thought into potential plot holes. I may not eliminate all of them, but I try to make them as tiny as possible. The process takes up a good chunk of my writing time, and my beta readers still bring many to my attention. So if you’re a writer, I highly recommend that you have a few people read through your book as a logic consultant. You may be surprised at how many plot holes they find that you thought you’d plugged.

12 thoughts on “Have Gun? Won’t Travel.

  1. I like this post a lot, Boyd. I write books that are probably more similar to yours – lots of action, very high stakes, and my recurring hero Derek Stillwater takes a beating and continues to perform at a high level. Occasionally I get criticism for this (not from readers, oddly enough, but from the occasional blurber or critic). My argument has always been, he’s a former Special Forces op, in excellent physical condition, and the timeline on my novels is very, very tight, rarely longer than 48 hours and sometimes as short as 8 or 9 hours.

    Every time I see someone in a movie dangling from a helicopter or building, my inclination is to say, “Ever tried that? Try it from the chin-up bar at the gym sometime, see if it’s even possible.” But it clearly is, because I just saw video of a lunatic going hand-over-hand from a construction crane. Still…

    Sort of like The Hobbit, right? If you could have called the eagles in to get you within 50 miles of your destination, why didn’t you?

  2. Oh, this is a big carp of mine. I don’t mind the occasional unrealistic coincidence, but I’m bothered to no end by things that are simply physically impossible or otherwise unfactual. I emailed an author a few years ago noting that she had an American POW escaping from North Vietnam in 1975. I pointed out to the (young) author that the war was over and all POWs home in early 1973. Her answer was, “Well, it’s fiction,” so it didn’t matter. Might as well have the Germans bomb Pearl Harbor, just as Bluto says in Animal House….

  3. Viewers of movies have been trained to assume that many things occur “off-camera.” Readers have, too, but probably to a lesser extent, and there is a limit to how far it can stretch in any event. the banal, “off-camera” stuff (like the details of an MI6 agent passing through airport security) can stretch farther in a movie, probably because movies are shorter, so you have to assume there’s more that you don’t see. In a book, the author can explain more and therefore should explain more. Maybe if Raiders had been a book first, it might have described Indiana grabbing food and water and bundling up in a dry-suit (did those even exist in the ’30s?) before strapping himself to the sub. Then again, maybe not: Spielberg obviously knew the extent to which moviegoers would forgive– or not notice– such things. I think the average reader is harder to fool.

  4. For me, it’s all about expectations going in. Indiana Jones is fantasy from the get go. Of course he can hold his breath for two days. Moving a weapons cache a thousand miles without encountering any difficulties? Not so excusable in what is supposed to be a ‘realistic’ thriller.

    I started life reading science fiction. I’m used to excusing faster-than-light travel for the sake of story, so rapid DNA processing is acceptable. For me, the unbelievable part of CSI is that the lab rats are out interviewing suspects. My daughter’s friend works in a CSI lab. She’s lucky to see the light of day on her commutes, never mind running around the city shooting it out with bad guys!


  5. Good post Boyd.
    I think that readers are more discerning than viewers and the time invested (as you said) tends to give more thinking time to the reader. Also film makers can escape the implausible bits with map scenes etc.
    Also the style of novel will regulate the plot holes which can be forgiven. High concept works like yours and Mark Terry’s have a bit more wiggle room than hard boiled police procedurals which MUST get all the little details right to work. High concept thrillers by their very nature require readers to suspend their disbelief and once my disbelief is suspended then I become less critical as I’m enjoying the ride.
    I guess all the plot holes on screen would account for me picking up a book in preference to picking up the remote control.

  6. The bigger than life stuff is something readers will accept. It is the small stuff that is most problematic.

    I’m reading a mystery. The heroine is a policeman who wants to be a detective. The problem is her backstory. Her mother was an addict who committed suicide, her father abandoned the family and ended up in prison, she was raped as a child, is paranoid, and is currently being stalked. It isn’t believable that all that happened to her and yet she has had time to live a good life. I’m not saying it isn’t possible in the real world, but it isn’t plausible.

    I think that believability comes from the small details. In James scott bell’s book on plot and structure, he covers cause and effect. If my hero does this what will happen. It is at that point it has to be believable.

  7. Excellent post.
    On James Bond, I think the gun carrying is an issue producers have gladly skirted over the years. The original Ian Flemming novels goes to the extent of explaining luggage false bottoms, acquiring the gun in-sight, that kind of thing.

    But yes, movies cut corners way more often that writers do.

  8. People are definitely less tolerant of those holes in their logic when it comes to books, even in fantasy or sci-fi where the very laws of physics deliberately ignored for the story people will cry “No-Go” if one doesn’t follow the accepted “Star Trek” or “Dr. Who” logic.

    What gets me though is the times when the facts that are considered plot holes, impossible events, or unlikely coincidences are the things based on actual facts. I actually had an agent drop me once because she wanted me to change some major parts of story due to them being unrealistic.

    For instance:

    1. yes it does get as cold as -70f in Alaska (Fairbanks doesn’t even close the schools unless it is -50f for four or more consecutive days)
    2. yes we have had earthquakes that registered 9.0 & higher up here (1964 Good Friday Quake was 9.2. I’ve been through a 7.9 in Nov 2002…it was scary)
    3. yes the vast majority of Alaskan men, and a larger than average number of women, are military veterans and there are Marines, Rangers, and even SF & SEALs in almost every town…especially in law enforcement.
    4. Snow machines are the things you ride on, snow mobiles involve a coat hanger with paper snowflakes dangling from strings. (since this was just a language thing i was willing to change it, but still)

    Anyway, very good points Boyd.

  9. I do think expectations play a big part. People will cut more slack for Transformers or Armageddon than they will for Saving Private Ryan, which was meticulous in getting details about WWII correct. I also agree that readers will go along with suspending their disbelief about a story premise (e.g., warp drive actually works; an alien from Krypton looks like humans and can fly) as long as the small details are correct and internally consistent within the framework of the story.

  10. Hey Boyd,

    Awesome post! I, of course, applaud your attention to these details.

    Not all novelists are quite as dedicated. I think enough time has passed for me to share the amusing response of Austrailian bestselling thriller writer Matt Reilly to an email I sent him way, way back in 2000. (In his defense, he was very young at the time, and also very gracious.) I have quoted his response of “movie logic” many times over the years:

    Dear Susan,

    Ooooh, you’re good!

    And your pick-ups are very, very good (I have since been informed of the
    use of bridging gases, which I should have put in for the deep diving bits!
    Damn it.). And I’d love to correspond about this sort of thing in the

    To answer most of your points:

    > At one point Shane and Renshaw swim a mile with unraveling steel cable
    > tied around their waists. That’s not neutral underwater. How much do
    > you suppose that cable they’re dragging would weigh?

    Good point — “movie logic” at work.

    > Aside from the (I believe) full-on ficticious nature of the nitrogen
    > retarding pills, near the end of the novel the group dives from the
    > surface breathing a gas mixture of 2% oxygen/98% helium. This would
    > cause:
    > a) everyone to die from lack of oxygen, because oxygen in our breathing
    > mix must be in the viscinity of 21%. (And I haven’t done the math, but
    > that mix would probably be toxic at 3,000 foot depth.)
    > b) everyone to sound like Donald Duck while talking over the comm equipment.

    Nitrogen retarding pills are apparently being explored as we speak! But I
    understand exotic-mix diving does use these percentages.

    > Also, in that scene you state after they plummet to 100 feet that,
    > without the pills, they’d have died from the nitrogen by that point.
    > They’re not breathing ANY nitrogen, and even if they were it wouldn’t
    > do them a lick of harm not matter how fast they descended. It’s ascent
    > that’s the problem.

    I’d have to check this one, but you’re right, ascent is the problem…

    > A biologist would not be studying sea snake venom in Antarctica.

    Ooooh….good pick-up. I have no defence on that one.

    > Also, orcas do not engage in the behavior you’ve described. (Althought
    > I have to admit I loved those scenes!)

    Now on that one, I heartily claim author’s licence (it may not be true, but
    boy, it was fun, and added to the tension!). And to those who say that orcas
    don’t eat people — orcas have beem known to eat bears that stray into the
    water off Alaska, so humans are there to be had.

    > There were a few other criticisms I’d note, such as unrealistic
    > endurance–and I’m not talking about Shane. Mother (who truly is a
    > wonderful character) awoke from unconsciousness and traumatic shock and
    > swam a mile in nearly freezing water on an almost empty scuba tank with
    > one leg?

    Movie logic.

    > Anyway, ultimately these details really didn’t keep me from enjoying
    > the novel, but you should know that I’m not the only one who will
    > notice these things. You’re still very young. I’m sure you’ve got a
    > hugely successful career ahead of you. It would be scary if there were
    > no room for improvement, right?

    I always want to improve — always — and that’s why all constructive
    criticism is taken on board. And I know for next time to get it proofed by
    more experts (I was a student when I wrote ICE STATION, so my access to
    knowledgeable people was zero — no excuses, though).

    Nice to get compliments, too. A good editor does that. And you are without a
    doubt, a very good editor.

    Anyway, better run. Thanks so much for your very informed comments. I shall
    endeavour to use your scrutiny as the benchmark for my future books.

    Thank you again and take care,

    Matthew Reilly
    Sydney, Australia

    • I loved Ice Station and recommend it to my students (as well as Hell Island and Area 7, which I also happen to have on my classroom shelf). It works particularly well with boys who say they don’t like to read. I say “But do you like gunfights?” and that usually gets them hooked. it’s a great gateway book, and if there are any fallacies nobody ever picks up on them.

  11. Great post. I had an editor reject a short story with the comment, “no one would ever commit suicide that way.” The tale was based on a true story in our jail, the guy hung himself from a bunk bed. I saw the photos. After doing the head shake, the real truth came to me. It’s not that he didn’t believe it was possible to hang yourself from a bunk bed, it’s that I didn’t convince him it was possible. One blogging agent calls it the “tang of reality.”

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