Writing “Killer” Action/Violence.

I read a lot of books, mostly action/adventure and historical. One of the biggest interest killers with a novel is in finding a protagonist who does things in a manner that suggests an intimate affiliation with the “Hollywood” way of doing things, vs. the way a professional would do them. Let’s face it; Hollywood knows how to use the film medium to get the heart pounding, while a writer has to be able to ignite the scene with captivating prose. Writing is not easy, but it is made infinitely easier if one doesn’t have to imagine that which they have no personal experience with, and can simply exchange actual experience for the endless exposure they’ve had to Hollywood’s version of professionalism. It may take a little extra work, but adding authenticity to one’s action sequences doesn’t detract from the dramatic effect. I like to say: “The best writers of violent fiction actually know what a shallow grave smells like.”

There are some writers out there who’ve “been there and done that.” For a reader who’s been there and done that, it’s refreshing to find an author who makes them feel right at home. It’s understood, that true action heroes are seldom writers and I for one can’t demand that all my favorite authors have a history as man-hunters, but authors can learn from the professionals, if they care enough to seek out the information and incorporate it into their own writing. I may not write a great sex scene, but my action/violence is second to none!

Let’s explore a few “Hollywoodisms” while only scratching the surface of glaring errors often used in film and print.

#1. Real professional killers do not have a favorite gun: They may have a favorite weapon system, or style of weapon, but they do not – as a general rule – use the same weapon twice. Professional killers know that a dead body is evidence. If it’s been shot, the police expect that someone with a gun did the shooting. Carrying a gun away from the scene can be incriminating if one is unexpectedly challenged by the police. A professional killer leaves the gun next to the body. They aren’t trying to hide evidence. They are leaving the evidence with the victim and walking away clean.

While we’re on this topic, let’s look at what a weapon can tell the police. Even the basic crime enthusiast knows that the grooves and lands in the barrel of a firearm impart scratches and engravings onto the bullet as it travels down the bore. These marks can tie the bullet to a particular gun, and in some case, to a particular manufacturer or manufacturers. They also know that not only can the barrel marks point to a particular weapon, they know that extractor marks, ejector marks and even the unique pattern of the face of the breech on a particular weapon can be imparted to the brass cartridge case at the moment of firing.

Ammunition can tell an investigator a bunch. If the ammunition has been handled, DNA can survive in many instances. Fingerprints and body oils can transfer to the cartridge cases and with semi-automatic firearms, these cases are often tossed several feet to several yards from the weapon at the moment of its being fired. Finding these cases while in a hurry can be difficult and greatly increases the risk of being caught. Professionals don’t worry about this. They don’t handle the ammunition carelessly. Spectrographic study of the bullet can detect traces of particular powders used in the manufacture of particular brands of ammunition, and of the chemical make up of the priming compounds used to ignite the powders and in some cases, lubricants used when the weapon was cleaned. Therefore, a professional doesn’t have extra ammunition of that type lying around his house or apartment after the crime has been committed. Even without the gun, having the police discover statistically unusual evidence could result in a conviction. So, the professional keeps nothing that can tie them to a corpse. Don’t ignore this. A good detective won’t, but a lazy writer will.

#2. Real professional killers don’t use holsters: Even the most cavalier professional killer does not want to get caught. Homicide is fraught with risk. The unexpected will undoubtedly rear its ugly head and in a pinch, one must lose any incriminating piece of evidence immediately. Holsters, even the fancy clip on kind, will bear traces of DNA if the wearer has handled it, or had it clipped to articles of clothing they wear. To take one off, one must remove it if being challenged by police or security officers, and the discovery of a holster – with or without a weapon present, is a real curiosity that’s not easily explained.

#3. Real professional killers are aware of security cameras: The plethora of security cameras has really made the homicide business dangerous to the perpetrator. The good news for the professional is that the average system uses cameras with focal lengths and clarity that make good identification an iffy thing. Also, lighting is important for good video clarity, and in many cases, adequate lighting is not a consideration to the companies placing the cameras or to the entity requiring the surveillance system. This is not a hard and fast rule. So a writer can play with this a bit. Suffice it to say, few surveillance systems are invisible. At the same time, one can hardly walk a block on the average city street without coming under surveillance at least once, if not several times. Most professionals can pick out the cameras and know the locations they will most likely encounter them. They make it a point to turn their heads at the proper moment, or do something to obscure their face, that doesn’t involve wearing a hoodie pulled tightly around the eyes and nose.

While we’re on the topic of surveillance cameras, hearken back – if you will – to the photographs released of the suspects nearly immediately following the Boston Marathon bombings. Note the clarity and framing and nearly perfect posing of the suspects. I can state with near certainty, if not with authority, that some of those photographs were not from fixed surveillance cameras attached to businesses. Some of those photos came from video in the hands of people who were actively performing surveillance of the bombers! Think for a moment what I’ve just said. These two guys were under surveillance at the time! Which means, someone really wet his or her pants following the bombing. It would be interesting to know how this happened, but given the lawlessness and secrecy of the current administration, I’m sure this will never come out.

#4. Professional killers aren’t typically cruel: Cruelty is not professional. That’s not to say a good story line can’t include a really sick killer, but a great story line can also include a killer who does his or her chore with mechanical precision. The secret rests in how well the author can handle the introspective aspects of the killer’s psyche and their interpersonal relationships away from their “profession.” What I’m trying to suggest here is to shy away from stereotypes and give the reader a nice bone to chew on while they devour your work.

#5. Professional killers typically do not use knives: Knives are great for sinister killers who don’t mind intimate bloodletting, and they can be employed fairly well, by well-trained killers. They can be silent and they can certainly be deadly, but the intimacy of a knife attack is uncertain and it’s very difficult to do without transferring a little of the killer’s DNA to the victim and the victim’s DNA to the killer. A Special Forces soldier doesn’t worry about this. A killer, who is going to walk or drive away from the scene into uncertain situations that might occur following the killing, does worry about it. While we’re on this subject, no one throws a knife or one of those little ninja stars.

I could go on for hours, but you get the point. “Think” about what you are writing and if you aren’t sure, seek out and contact someone who knows a little about the trade craft pertaining to your story line. Pardon the pun, but don’t ignore this if you want your book to be a killer novel.  If you’d like to discuss your work before going final, feel free to contact me here.


About danielchamberlain

Former Chief of Police. Former Special Agent, AFOSI (Retired). Former Director of Security of multi-national corporation. Currently, Registered Nurse. Father Husband Outdoorsman
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