01/18/2012 11:51 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

The Magic Bullet Theory In Fiction

When I began writing military thrillers I was eager to use my past experiences to breathe some realism into a genre I felt was sorely in need of it. I quickly found out that it was a double-edged sword. Let everyone know you're a subject matter expert, and boy, you'd better back it up - except my knowledge was secret, preventing me from the very realism I was trying to achieve. I never want to put another American's life in jeopardy by revealing classified tactics, techniques or procedures.

After finishing my second novel, "All Necessary Force," the juxtaposition is like an old hat. Something that had to be dealt with, but not insurmountable. I might have to make up a widget here and there, but I wouldn't be reduced to writing action scenes that defy the laws of physics.

You know what I'm talking about. Those scenes that cause your jaw to drop at the sheer audacity of the author/director in insulting your intelligence. You do, don't you? Tell me I'm not the only one insulted by these scenarios:

  1. The Bullet That Causes a Body to Fly Across The Room: You know this scene. A guy gets hit in the chest by double-ought buckshot, and then proceeds to fly backward with such force he crashes through a wall. That doesn't happen in real life, but don't take my word for it. Take Sir Isaac Newton's: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". In other words, the guy who pulled the trigger should be flying back in the opposite direction, through the other wall. In the same vein, bullets don't have anything other than kinetic power. Usually, in a cinematic gunfight, you see bullets slicing through buildings with small explosions or chopping down trees like a magic buzz-saw. Trust me, you could work on a single sapling with a belt-fed machine gun for quite a while and never make it fall (yeah, I tried it once on an Army range. Shhh...).
  2. The Man of Steel: The protagonist and the arch villain have an hour-long battle with bare fists and anything handy to use as a club, beating each other relentlessly. No matter the damage, they always come back for more. In reality, hand-to-hand combat between trained men is incredibly destructive, and very, very tiring. Add in improvised weapons, and it tends to end quickly. I know some folks who could give Jason Bourne a run for his money, but if you cracked them with a tire iron full-on, they wouldn't bounce back up with a round-house kick. At the end of the day, skill matters, but skill doesn't increase a person's magic armor like a video game. A human body is still a human body. It can only take so much punishment.
  3. The Silent Sniper Shot: The man creeps slowly to the top of a building, screws on a "silencer," then triggers whispering death through a window a mile away, making less noise than the proverbial pin drop. Well, maybe in the vacuum of space, but here on earth there are two different aspects to the noise a rifle makes: a) the explosion of the powder in the shell, and b) the bullet itself breaking the sound barrier. Thus, if you slap a suppressor on a rifle, you'll muffle the noise of the explosion, but almost all bullets designed for long-range shots are still going to break the sound barrier. Yes, you can use sub-sonic bullets, but if you do, you aren't taking a sniper shot from 1000 meters away. The bullet becomes subsonic because it's using less powder, which means less range. The reverse of this is the revolver with a "silencer" screwed on to the end of the barrel. Here, it's not the bullet breaking the sound barrier (although that still happens), it's the fact that most of the gas escapes from the cylinder, making the suppressor irrelevant. At least I used to say that. I once worked with a unit that actually had a suppressed revolver - but it was made from the ground up for one single purpose: quiet killing. It wasn't like the movies, where a guy buys a revolver at Walmart then proceeds to "silence" it.
  4. The Radio That Talks to the Moon: This is one of my biggest pet-peeves. In the real world, communication is one of the most difficult things to accomplish on an assault, with seemingly everything on the planet interfering with your ability to talk at the critical moment. For the most part, without setting up a fixed antennae aimed at a satellite, radios are line of sight. Yet in secret-agent world the protagonist gets an ear-bud the size of a pea and proceeds to talk across continents. Presumably his battery is stowed in some other orifice. An ancillary to this is The Presidential Cell Phone that Talks to the Radio in a Fighter Jet.

While I'm pretty sure I'll never feel the need to use any of these devices to advance my plot, I have found the hardware and weaponry more difficult to manage than I thought it would be, precisely because I can't talk about anything classified. Luckily, I write fiction, so I can back up and re-write in order to make the situation work. Along with that, I have a healthy understanding of technology, having used it to track real targets, so I can create widgets that are technologically feasible, but not something I have ever seen. This has, however, caused its own problems.

Before sending my manuscript to my editor, I have friends who read it to make sure I'm not giving anything away. I know what's classified, but I want an extra set of eyes on it, especially eyes that are still in the arena. Usually, they have me change a few things and we call it a day. For "All Necessary Force," I got to turn the tables. On a certain piece of kit, I was told I "couldn't talk about that. It's classified. Take that technology out of the book." My reply: "Uhhh...I made that up. We don't really have it."

While fooling an operator is pretty cool, sometimes I cross classified lines without meaning to, because there are only so many ways to skin the cat. One widget I created in "All Necessary Force" was something I had never seen, but I knew it was technologically feasible. Sure enough, a few months after I put it on the page I was doing some work for an agency, and the guy I was with pulled out my widget. It had become real, and I was now accidentally treading on classified technology. I had him walk me through how it worked, and was satisfied that mine was different enough that I didn't need to pull it. I won't say which piece of kit it is, but it's still in "All Necessary Force."

In the end, I've learned that being a subject-matter expert doesn't make writing the technology any easier. It just creates a different set of problems. One thing's for sure - if it's in my book, it's damn sure capable of working in the real world, Sir Isaac Newton and all.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.