Hollywood Lies

Don’t use television as a writing source.

I should end there with that one true sentence and be done with this blog post, but then again, I probably need to defend it with some examples.

Let’s start with dialogue.

“Marcus, you cover me from over there,” the long-haired man said, fingering his rifle. “Don’t let anyone get behind me.”

“Right, Bill,” Marcus said, rubbing the scar over his right eye. “I’ll be behind that empy barrel that won’t stop a bullet, but it’ll look good on the screen if they ever make a movie about us.”



“My name’s not Bill, and remember, Marcus, when you shoot, stand up in the open and hold the trigger down until a thousand rounds are fired. Then run to that rock, jump into a forward roll and come up firing again as if you’ve reloaded, but you won’t, because you have a magic machine gun.”

“Bill, you know you’re my best friend.”

“Then why can’t you remember my name, Marcus. It’s about that woman, isn’t it? That Harry girl.”

“She wasn’t that hairy, maybe a little on her knuckles, but she gave me a case of the screaming memies every time she was around.”

“She gave me a case of something else, Marcus, but that’s a discussion for another day. Marcus.”


“Start shooting now!!!!”

Well, you get the picture. I don’t know how many wall-banger books I’ve started that are filled with dialogue like this. (A wall-banger is a novel that’s so bad you throw it against the wall). Lordy, I’ve read enough of them, or tried to.

In fact, it was a wall-banger forty years ago that made me sure I could write novels. I distinctly remember closing it after five pages and saying to myself, I can write better than that.

The dialogue above could have come from a screenplay. Movies use names all the time to help viewers understand who’s talking and to identify a character,

(although I wish they’d done that in Blackhawk Down, because all those kids look the same in uniform),

but that’s not necessary in novels. We don’t say a person’s name in every sentence. Instead, identify the speaker with mannerisms or actions.

I can get bogged down here with names and dialogue for an hour, but let’s move on to other ways television and the movies can get a writer into trouble, like…

…cars don’t always flip over in automobile accidents. We all know it sometimes happens, but for cryin’ out loud, give us a reason and not just that it ran into a knife lying in the road and blew out a tire and rolled onto its side, but thinking about cutlery…

…the most dangerous knife in the kitchen isn’t that big chef’s knife half-naked women grab when they’re scared. It looks good on screen I guess, but don’t use this in your action scene. How about a nice boning knife, long and sharp and your character can use it when a bad guy comes running into the kitchen shooting a hundred times but…

…the aforementioned guns really don’t fire forever. A six shooter only shoots…six times. Be sure you know how many rounds a semi-automatic magazine will hold. They vary. Know your weapons if you’re going to write about them. No one can intentionally shoot a gun out of someone’s hand, and shooting a bad guy in the leg is iffy at best. If you’re unfamiliar with firearms, reach out to an expert, especially if someone shoots a car or something filled with gas and creates explosions…

…and those aren’t always big balls of yellow, red, and orange flame. What you see on the screen is usually a controlled propane explosion. Again, do a little research to find out what real detonations look and sound like, instead of a slow-motion ball of fire, and while we’re talking about fire…

…torches don’t burn for hours.

Let’s pause for reflection. I learned this when I was a kid. My grandparents lived in the country, so we were always building fires (and that’s how I learned spirits of camphor is an excellent remedy for burns). Us kids grew up watching movies with people carrying torches into gold-filled caves or to burn castles and such (by the way, those people were geniuses at whipping up a batch of torches on the fly), so one evening when I was around twelve, my cousin and I decided to make some of our own.

We built a fire in the pasture a good distance from the house and barn and stuck some old ax handles into the coals. They soon burned cheerfully and when it came time to run off into the darkness and chase boogers with a cheerful flame, I pulled mine out. Instead of the steady blaze I’d seen on TV, it went out.

I blew on it and flames flickered alive. Aha!

If blowing on the smoking end will produce flame, then I can run and get the same result. Maybe walking brisky along with a crowd intent on burning a monster is the idea.

My Old Man recalled watching from the porch as Cousin and I ran, trotted, and walked with brisk determination through the pasture, holding the “torches” high in the air. He said it looked like fireflies that went out as soon as we stopped.

And darkness closed in.

Hollywood torches burn forever. Real ones might burn for a few seconds if they’re made properly. If you’re gonna have torches in your scene, give us a quick sentence or two about how your characters made them.

Let’s see. Oh, victim aren’t thrown across a room when shot with a 9mm or even a .45…

…and getting shot in the shoulder isn’t like a mosquito bite that heals the next day and speaking of shooting…

…you can’t shoot the lock on a door with the abovementioned pistols and have it swing open. Your character will likely wound themselves or just shoot holes in wood and that can be loud and…

…speaking of loud, silencers don’t work on revolvers and they don’t make the report as silent like the desert at night where…

…the old west isn’t all deserts and Monument Valley.


It’s all right to use movies and television to spark an idea or two. That’s called working, and when the Bride comes into the living room to find me stretched back in the recliner, I’m getting ideas for later.

I think I’ll go do that right now. Or I might read. That’s working, too, and I can be inspired by books…good ones, that is.


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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “Hollywood Lies

  1. Thanks, Rev. Your points are well-taken, particularly the one about the recuperative powers of the human body after a shot to the shoulder (or just about anywhere else). I suppose one could find justify it as artistic license. I suppose.

    The most egregious example I can think of takes place in the movie Revenge from 2017 (NOT the Kevin Costner vehicle). The heroine of the movie is gang-raped, tossed over a cliff, and impaled on a tree. She frees herself — yes! — and retaliates. SMH.

    • Howdy Joe! If it’s fiction, I’ll try to believe anything, except what’s blatantly improbable. Good lord, I put my characters through the wringer, but they pay for it in some way.

  2. We’ve been watching the original Mission Impossible series. Let’s hear it for karate chops that render the victim unconscious for however long the script calls for.

    • Morning, Terry. When I’m reading, I want to hear that crack against someone’s head so I’ll know they’re out for a while. Writers should at least give them a headache that lasts for a while. In movies, that chop on the brachial nerve will drop someone quick, but they don’t go out, at least that’s what a couple of officers have told me.

  3. I’m a fan of the old TV westerns. But it’s hilarious how often these two things happen. First, as you mention, when somebody is to be shot but not die, they always get one in the shoulder. They usually just slap their hand over it and say, I’ll be all right. Or the sheriff or doctor says it for him.

    The other one is how often a guy shoots the gun right out of the hand of another, without hitting any flesh or an innocent bystander.

    Then again, that’s entertainment. Reality is sometimes quite dull.

  4. Thanks, Rev, for all the reality checks. Great information. I guess sometimes those writers of fiction want actual fiction. Maybe they should try writing fantasy. Now, there’s where you can have some real fun…and no limitations of physics or other science. Your imagination is your only limitation. Just make the rules and be consistent.

    Have a great “working” weekend!

  5. Oops. In my new novel, to be published early next year, one of my characters shoots the gun out of a bad guy’s hand. From a distance. Through a dirty window. But….(will this save me?)…my shooter is a sniper. (Later, when told, “Nice shot,” he jokes that it was a terrible shot. He was aiming for the guy’s head.)

    • There are always ways to make something work…and make it entertaining.

      In The Magnificent Seven, James Coburn (Britt) shoots a bandit right off his horse. Then there’s this exchange:

      Chico : Ah, that was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen!

      Britt : The worst. I was aiming at the horse.

    • A trained sniper might be different. I’ve seen a police video where a gun was shot from a man’s hand. Accident shots are real. Once in college, and friend handed me a pistol and told me to try it out. We were down on a creek, shooting into the bank. I saw a mussel shell maybe 75 yards away. Raised the gun, quick sight down the barrel, pulled the trigger, and the shell exploded. I handed it back. “Shoots good.”

      He ran after me, begging me to do it again, but I knew it wouldn’t happen on a bet. Sheer luck.

    • Thank you sir!

      I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for the past 33 years and sometimes I’ll come up with my outdoor detective that plays like the Naked Gun. Folks either love it, or roll their eyes.

      Looks like you could be a fan. Have a great week!

  6. Yep to all the above. Which is why—because I have some shootings, knifings, and spear impalings going on—I have my wound treatment references at the ready. But I do love watching 100 torches blazing on screen!

    • Might you be referring to the 100s or was it1,000s of torches in the movie Lost Horizons? Of course, there were other magical forces at work, people could live for hundreds of years as long as they didn’t venture out of the valley. Maybe the torches could stay aflame under the same influence.

  7. And if I may… those hardy fools rolling from a moving vehicle – usually at great speed – who tumble along the shoulder of the road and get up covered in only dust…

  8. Great voice you got there, Rev. I relate to you, especially about Hollywood lies. A little story slightly on or off topic, depending on how you look at it. Back in the 60s when you and I were kids, our family got our first TV. It was a clunky black & white – full of tubes – one being the picture tube which, if it blew, would cost more to replace than get a whole new TV which we sure as hell couldn’t afford.

    Fortunately, it was always one of the little tubes that went south. My Dad, who watched every western he could find, would say when a little tube blew, “It’s time to call Vernie (the local TV repairman) to come and clean out the dead Indians from the back of the TV.” But today, we can’t say “Indians” no more.

    • Actually, Gary—and knowing you’re in the land of First Nations—many contemporary Native Americans down south of you prefer “Indian” to “Native American.” Or so they tell me.

  9. So much to pillory here, and you did so in fine fashion, Rev .

    My wife and I watched the 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers the other night, and found it not only extremely well directed and riveting, but quite disturbing because the violence was shown realistically–meaning sudden and deadly. Minus the blood in many cases, but still quite stark. It was very much a cinema verite take on the insurgency sweeping Algiers in the late 1950s. On the other hand, I couldn’t watch that sort of thing very often. So I suppose a softer take on violence, a more cliched tell don’t show used in some television, is easier on the psyche.

    Thanks for another great post! Have a wonderful weekend.

  10. Some years back, my elder brother and I were watching a standard TV mystery. Between us with our differing world knowledge, we caught around THIRTY factual errors. It was everything from how a big rig’s brakes work to how high-security guard dogs are trained. Sad, just sad. And don’t get me started on horses.

    What really grinds my gears, though, are readers and publishing types who believe the errors and try to correct you. I had an agent who spent an entire rejection letter giving me a lecture about why the opening scene of an exploding boat was inaccurate. I was right. That elder brother rebuilt and restored classic yachts as well as having a yacht explode on him in the same manner, and he had vetted the whole scene. Sigh.

    If you enjoy funny reality checks on movies and TV, you can find various YouTube experts who take apart errors. For example, a trauma doctor went through DIE HARD and explained how many horrible ways Bruce Willis should have died or been maimed as he plowed through the movie. Ouch.

    • When you said, “What really grinds my gears, though, are readers and publishing types who believe the errors and try to correct you.” it reminded me of the story of a cocktail party in which one fashion expert was critiquing the hair style of another woman from some distance away. She called it a poor copy of the Hamell cut, not very well done.

      The person she was talking to couldn’t help but laugh in her face and take her over to introduce her to none other than Dorothy Hamill.

  11. Ahh…Rev, ya burst my Hollywood bubble. I love those scenes that are so unrealistic. It keeps me coming back for more. It’s okay, isn’t it, if know it’s fake?

    When I was about 12, I saw my first dead body. A car accident up the street from us. My older bro and I were outside and heard the bang and ran up to see what we could see. No emergency vehicles had arrived on scene yet, just a small knot of neighbors. Alas, no cell phones.

    I got close enough to one of the cars to look inside, my bro trying to pull me back. I’ll just say it didn’t look like TV. I’ve always wondered who that guy was…he was dressed in a suit and tie, jacket thrown in the passenger seat. Long-sleeved white shirt, completely soaked in blood. Broken glasses on the dash. I remember wondering how they got there.

    I can still see him. But, here’s the kicker. I’ve watched scores of Hollywood-ese scenes and couldn’t begin to describe most of them.

    It’s reality that stays with us.

    Happy Saturday, all! 🙂

  12. 1. Oy! I did research for my Western, Yes, I know, it’s silly to research something that everybody knows. But DID YOU KNOW THAT HORSES ARE NOT JUST LIKE MOTORCYCLES? I’ll say no more.
    2. Scene: Black Morris has Mr. Goody at gunpoint.
    Obscene: “Black Morris takes a step, stumbles, and drops the weapon.” People who stumble clutch whatever their hands are holding.
    3. Another writer’s Western had bandits on horseback catch up with his wood-fired train and hold it up. Trains have been faster than horses since 1830. Coal was used in most of the West; not enough trees. I suggested he call it a Fantasy. He was not pleased.
    4. Watched a TV movie once where a train lost its pneumatic pressure, ran away, and almost crashed. Pneumatic pressure holds the brakes in the off position. Lose pressure; brakes go on.

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