We’ve all seen them—a movie car chase with tires squealing on a dirt road; a TV gunfight where shooters miss their target from point blank range; a fight where the opponent takes blows that should’ve knocked him out. It’s flawed fiction, and you can’t afford to put it in your novel. That’s why experts knowledgeable about subjects you’re not, or individuals gifted with skills you lack, are vital to ensuring your fiction is true to its word.
I remember when I brought in a personally significant expert to help me with my novel writing. In the opening chapter, Central American drug kingpin Juan Antonio Marquez has captured Liam Patrick Lenihan, Irish immigrant and covert operative of a top secret branch of the U.S. government whose youth was spent developing his lethal skills as a fighter and gunman during the Irish troubles. The scene finds them inside Marquez’s encampment south of the U.S.-Mexico border, with Marquez about to execute Lenihan after he refused an offer from the drug lord to switch sides.
Marquez turned and with his right hand pulled out his Desert Eagle. “Sure you won’t reconsider my offer? I’ll throw in a few hundred thousand as incentive.”
Lenihan stared death in the face. As he had so many times before. “You can burn in hell.”
“I probably will, amigo.” Marquez sighed, pointed the weapon at the side of Lenihan’s head, and pulled back the hammer. “On your knees, then.”
That’s when Lenihan pressed the detonator in his pocket. The blast rocked the terrain like an earthquake. Stones and dirt fountained upward toward them, caving in the hidden drug pipeline along with the unfortunate souls who happened to be inside.
The explosion distracted Marquez for just a moment, but that was all Lenihan needed. Spinning around, his left hand grabbed Marquez’s wrist while he swung his right hand in a chopping motion onto the barrel of the gun, twisting it downward, his thumb simultaneously hitting the magazine release, leaving only one round in the weapon. The gun fired that last shot into the sand, and then fell from Marquez’s hand.
Lenihan lunged at Marquez’s hulking frame, his right arm fastening itself around the man’s beefy neck, his inner elbow firmly planted against the windpipe. Using his newly-gained leverage, he pushed his flailing opponent to the ground, only a foot or so from the ledge, squeezing with all his strength while searching with his left hand for the Desert Eagle. The muscles in his right arm screaming from exertion, Lenihan found the gun and, in one final motion, pounded it against Marquez’s skull. He went down like a giant sack of coffee beans.
Cool, huh? Thing is, I know nothing about fighting or shooting a gun—but I wanted the action in my scene to be accurate to the last detail. So I turned to my son-in-law Zach. When I wrote this, he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in the U.S. Army Infantry. His job there would be to fight the Taliban, and his training had prepared him for the worst. He knew how to fight, and he certainly knew his weaponry from guns to explosives.
So here’s what I did. I read the scene to Zach up to the moment of the explosion. I told him I wanted Lenihan to engage and win the fight with Marquez—and then asked Zach to show me what he would do if he were on his knees with a gun to his head. Step by step, he showed me the process of the fight. It was like rehearsing a choreographed dance in slow motion. I played Marquez’s role, then Lenihan’s role, and then I took notes. It was fun and, in its own right, scary. It was sobering to sense and feel how my son-in-law would face a life or death situation, and it was humbling to think that he might actually face a similar circumstance in real combat.
Don’t rely on TV, movies, or your own perceptions to bring realism to essential scenes in your novel. Find the experts and, as best as you can, recreate the scenes with them. You’ll enjoy the process, and your readers will appreciate the accuracy of your writing.
Zach went on to serve one full tour in Afghanistan and is now a retired U.S. Army veteran courageously dealing with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. I am proud of him and his willingness to lay his life on the line for his country, and value him as my son.
I want to hear from you!
What type of action scene would you like to recreate with an expert?