You’re Still Writing It, And It’s Wrong!

Some of the things I see on TV cop shows really grind my gears. And, unfortunately, some of those things are actually finding their way into books—a double gear-grinder. Hmm…I wonder how that could happen?

Could it be that some writers are still using cop-television as a research tool, no matter how many times I and others in the real cop business jump up and down while screaming, snorting, squalling, huffing and puffing, and squealing? Could it be that writers actually believe what they see on shows such as Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Blacklist (actually, I like this show, but it’s still far from realistic), Ironside (this one lasted all of two episodes before the network flushed it), and the woefully ridiculous Under The Dome?

Could it be that writers believe THEM over what they see here on The Graveyard Shift and what they’ve learned at the Writers’ Police Academy? Please, say it ain’t so!

Of course, it’s perfectly fine and dandy to stretch the truth and even make up stuff when writing fiction, but the make-believe absolutely must be believable, and not just when writing fictional cop stuff. Other things in stories must also be believable—not necessarily true, but believable. Or, as I like to say, believable make-believe.

After all, shows like Star Trek and Grimm are total fiction, but viewers can easily be drawn into the action because what they see the actors doing on screen “seems” realistic. It’s believable make-believe.

There are many great examples of believable make-believe on TV, and one such show is The Andy Griffith Show. I know, there were no great crime-solving moments on the show, but the human aspect of police work definitely shined. Sure, Barney came across as, well, goofy, at times. And, of course, the goofy cases that did come up were handled in a like manner—goofy. However, we all kind of believed Barney and Andy and all they did to reach their goal(s), even though you knew, or at least you hoped what you were watching unfold on your TV sets was not how real police officers conducted business in the real world.

I suppose Barney and Andy came across as well as they did because there were no computers and other electronic gadgets to help with their investigations. They didn’t have the luxury of typing 7 keys on a computer keyboard and suddenly have the answer to world peace at their fingertips. Nor did Andy and his sidekick have instant access to surveillance cameras on every street corner corner from Mayberry to Mt. Pilot to Raleigh and beyond.

There were no magic touch screens in Mayberry that had the capability to pinpoint the exact coordinates of a bad guy’s location. Actually, Barney didn’t have access to many of the tools that are available to TV cops. And that’s understandable. But it’s not only the modern-day tools that seem to confusing writers. They’re tripping over the simple things. You know, like the ones that if they simply stopped and thought about them for a minute or two they’d have that “Aha” moment and correct the error(s).

Anyway, let’s go over a few of the things I’ve seen in some of the advanced reader copies I’ve received lately… Wait…before we go any further, I’d like to point out that I receive numerous books from publishers each month, and they send them asking that I read the stories and then review the books here on The Graveyard Shift.

Think for a second, though… How many book reviews have you read on this site? That’s right, I can count them on one hand. The reason there are so few is because I won’t write a bad review. Of course, not all the tales and writing are bad. In fact, the majority of the stories are extremely well-written and the voices are really nice, etc. But there are often bad police and forensic “things” that take me out of the story. So, I put the book aside and move on to the next tale.

Okay, back to the things I’ve seen in books that make me stop reading and wonder how in the world an author could think that what they were writing could indeed be believable. And the list starts with…

1. When shot, people fly backward as if they’d been shot out of a cannon. NO. When shot, people normally fall down and bleed.

2. Cops carry their sidearms fully loaded with a round in the chamber. This business of “racking the slide” before entering a dangerous situation is a TV thing.

3. Bad guys who live in cruddy $2 a day fleabag motels and have not a cent to their name, can easily afford and have access to top dollar military-grade weapons and explosives, and really cool electronic gear. Yeah, right. That could happen in the real world (note the sarcasm).

4. People are easily knocked unconscious with a slight blow to the head with a gun, book, candlestick, etc., or a quick chop to the back of the neck with the heel of the hand. NO! I’ve seen people hit in the head with a baseball bat and it never slowed them down. Believe me, if the blow is hard enough to render someone unconscious, they’ll be out of commission for a while and will not immediately hop up, rub their head for second, and then dive back into the fight.

5. This business of having one lone geeky man or woman who can tap five or six keys on a computer to bring up a bad guy’s photo, shoe size, current address, his favorite food, pet’s name and vet records, and an alphabetical listing of all food in his refrigerator and cupboards, is total nonsense.

6. The same geeky guy taps four more keys and suddenly has access to every single camera in the world, including the one’s installed outside of Betty Sue’s Cut and Curl is more nonsense.

7. FBI agents ride into town on white horses and take over local murder cases. And, when they do, they’re totally arrogant and obnoxious. NO. The FBI does not work local murder cases.

8. TV cops have no trouble kicking in doors while wearing high heels or other street shoes. Doors are NOT easy to kick in. In fact, no one does that anymore. There are more effective ways of gaining entry to a residence or business.

9. Why is it that TV and film cops have no trouble finding a parking spot no matter where they are, including cities like Boston. Have you ever tried to find a parking space in Boston? And, why do TV detectives all drive shiny new cars when real-life investigators often get hand-me-down cars or the cheapest thing on the lot?

10. Back to getting shot. TV cops are tough as nails. So are many real cops. On TV, though, the cops get shot four five times, stabbed four or five times, hit with a boards and bricks, and they still carry on until the bad guys are locked up. Not a single whimper. Yet, when a nurse or significant other touches the wound, they all scream like a woman in an old-time black and white horror flick. In real life, a cop gets shot and he’s taken to the hospital where, by the way, he still may moan, groan, and cry like a baby.

11. TV cops have a habit of getting shot a day or two before retiring from the job. This one is a really tired cliche’. Please stop writing it.

12. Revolvers do NOT automatically eject spent brass.

13. Cops cannot tell the type of firearm used by looking at a bullet wound.

14. Cops do NOT fire warning shots.

15. Cops do NOT shoot to kill.

16. Cops do NOT shoot to wound.

17. Cops do shoot center mass, and they do shoot until the threat ceases to exist, meaning if the bad guy stops shooting and puts down his weapon, then the police are to stop shooting as well. And their next move would be to restrain and arrest.

18. Cops do NOT use Tasers when the situation calls for deadly force.

19. Cops do not use deadly force when the situation calls for Taser use, pepper spray, baton, etc.

20. Do I really need to address cordite? NO ODOR OF CORDITE!!!!


43 thoughts on “You’re Still Writing It, And It’s Wrong!

  • Bob Mueller

    At my new day job, I work night trick, and have access to cable TV all night long. I’ve learned that the L&O:SVU writers are great at writing characters and plots, but lousy at some of the procedural stuff (and most of the technical stuff). I’ve lost track in just 2 weeks of the number of times Stabler and Benson entered a dark area without flashlights. And I almost yelled at them during one episode where they entered a house late at night.
    Elliott: You smell that?
    Benson: Yeah. Cordite.

  • Doug M Cummings

    Was reading a really exciting work by a newly popular author. Great opening. Great foot chase. Rookie off duty-cop loses the suspect, then proceeds to PUT THE SAFETY on his.38 Colt Detective Special and slides it into his shoulder holster.

    Stopped reading and dropped that one into the pile for the used-book store…

  • Dave Swords

    Expanding a little on #4 – water in the face does not rouse an unconscious person – unless they’re faking. Reminds me of a call I was on one time. More on that some other time. :)

  • Steven Torres

    I get your meaning with #15, but I wonder if that’s more theoretical than practical. I mean shooting to kill and shooting center-mass until the shooter’s no longer a threat would often work out to be pretty much the same thing, no?

    My pet peeve (besides the fact that anyone connected to the PD seems able to question the suspect – lab techs, crime-scene photographers, etc) is the pistol-whipping that seems to have no effect. Like a gun isn’t a slab of steel that will put a dent in your face.

  • Lee Lofland

    No, Steven, shooting center mass and shooting to kill are not the same. Shooting center mass is to aim for the center of the largest target available at the time.

  • Rita

    This is exactly the reason I’ve given up on TV cop shows.
    I’d ask you to post this every week but I don’t think it will help.

  • Terry Shames

    The one that I always remark about to my husband when we are watching cops shows is, “Oh, yeah, there just happened to be a place to park right in front.” I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does.

    One of the reasons I like Person of Interest is that it’s so preposterous that it leaves no room for worrying about reality!

  • Cori Lynn Arnold

    #5 and #6 burn me every time. It takes hours, weeks, days. And none of the GUI’s are sexy with big print either!

    I admire the odd hacker with patience, perseverance. Even the evil ones, since they are so very few.

  • Leslie Budewitz

    Brilliant, Lee. Sharing on FB and mentioning on my blog right now.

  • Pat Marinelli

    Great post…again. I hear you and I laugh at the TV; but a book, for some reason, I want to toss across the room. I guess I figure writers should know better. Many of them need to purchase your book.

  • Robert Doucette

    The always available parking place (#9) is a classic TV/Movie device dating from at least the 1950s. Romantic comedies characters can always pull up in front of their office or apartments in downtown NYC or LA and park in front of the doors. We figured it was supernatural and now pray to St Doris of Day when we need a parking spot.

  • Nike Chillemi

    Thx on the cordite. Not long ago I read an award winning romantic suspense recommended by a friend. The novel had the smell of cordite, oh about ten or more times throughout the book.

  • Robert Doucette

    One question. OK, we hear you. Gunfire does NOT smell like cordite. What does it smell like? I guess I need to go to the range.

  • Lee Lofland

    Robert – The odor of firecrackers and other 4th of July fireworks are pretty close.

  • Kaye Munroe

    My father was a doctor who served as county coroner for 20 years. He took the job seriously, studying journals and taking courses. To him, cop shows were more like comedies. I grew up around cops—not only were the local cops friends of Dad’s but my best friend’s father was a highway patrol officer—so all of these complaints are very familiar to me.

    As a writer, I devote quite a bit of time to research, and I don’t understand why so many writers don’t bother. As a reader, a book full of errors tends to be a great disappointment. This blog showed up on my Facebook feed today, and I’m very glad to have found you! Let’s hope more writers learn to disregard what they see on television. Keep up the good work.

  • Ashley McConnell

    #3–Well, I can see them budgeting for the high-power explosives and cool electronic gear, but the company auditor refusing to fund a room at the Marriott… Those al-Qaeda auditors are real terrors, you know!

  • Meriah Crawford

    If police arrive at a house and see someone inside, apparently ill or possibly dead, not moving or responding to knocks, what happens? How do they get inside? Thanks!

  • Lee Lofland

    They’d force their way inside by breaking a window or door. Usually, it’s easier to break glass than wood or steel doors. They’re easier and cheaper to replace too.

  • Ann Bennett

    Now what does cordite smell like?? Just kidding.
    On a serious note, what do you think about the real life crime shows like Unusual Suspects. 48 hours, and the like. How dependable are they or are they edited so much to make a storyline it warps the actual procedural methods.

  • Fiona Quinn

    Lee, I can see the smoke coming out of your ears (and it really does smell like cordite).
    #1 a pet peeve!!!! No flying people.


  • Tessa Hudson

    Thank you so much for posting this!! As a new writer, I’m having a horrible time finding law enforcement agencies who will talk with me. I keep wondering if they think I’ve committed a crime and want to cover it up. I’d definitely bookmarking your site!! I do tons of research, but if there is a question…I work around it. I don’t want to write it, if I’m not sure. About #13, as far as wounds are concerned…can they tell if it was point blank or far away?

  • Lee Lofland

    Hi Tessa. Thanks for stopping by. You know, there’s a fantastic book called Police Procedure and Investigation you might find helpful. There’s a link to it in the right sidebar. The book is good but the author is a bit shaky…

    In the meantime, here’s one of my old blog posts about close contact gunshot wounds.

    And there’s always the Writers’ Police Academy.

  • Ursula

    Thank you for the reminder

    Also, after reading Police Procedure and Investigation and attending the Writers Police Academy twice, I enjoy watching the cop shows to see how many errors I find.

  • Kathleen A. Ryan

    A quick note to Steven re: police shooting. I echo what Lee has explained above. As a retired 21-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Dept on Long Island (roughly the 13th largest police dept in the US), it’s against the R&Ps (Rules & Procedures) to fire warning shots; shooting at a moving vehicle is prohibited (except when someone within the moving vehicle is shooting at police or public). Also, while spending a nice chunk of time at the range while attending the Academy (and thereafter, at the very least, once a year to qualify), we are taught to shoot center mass to terminate the unlawful activity; it is not “shoot to wound” or “shoot to kill.” We are also taught to shoot “two to the body (center mass)” and “one to the head,” so that we don’t fixate on center mass in case the bad guy/gal is wearing a vest (which can still certainly hurt & pack a punch), but isn’t going down.

    I have one pet peeve in particular when it comes to gun use in cop TV and/or movies. I have yet to see anyone do this properly, and I yell at the screen every time I see it. It has to do with holding a gun towards an aggressor at close range; I’ll address it after I explain some training habits while shooting at the range. When we practice, we start out at 6 ft, and work our way back, in varying increments, to a 25 yard line (and we are under time constraints, BTW). When shooting at a close distance, while keeping eyes on the target, we remove the service weapon from our secured holster w one hand (b/c in reality, at least one hand might be occupied ~ we are likely to be holding a clipboard, a flashlight, a notebook, etc), and we shoot while holding the gun right just above our holster, close to the body, and aim towards center mass ~ while at the same time, placing our non-dominant hand & arm across our chest to protect the heart area (even if wearing a vest). As we move back, we practice shooting one-handed, alternating with the non-dominant hand, in the event your dominant hand/arm is injured. We also set up malfunction drills, so that in real life, we don’t panic if a double feed or a stovepipe situation occurs: we must clear it ASAP & get back to shooting at the target. We also set the magazines up in such a way so that we’ll run out of ammo while shooting ~ to avoid panicking & learn to quickly release the empty mag & replace it.

    If a cop were to hold out a gun (with arms outstretched, no bending at the elbow — as seen in every cop show or movie, and it’s wrong), there’s a likely chance the aggressor will reach out and either swipe the gun from our hands, or even clamp down on the weapon, rendering it useless. I guess it’s more visually “dramatic” when an actor/actress holds it straight out in front of him/her — but they are inches away from the subject, who can easily grab the weapon.

    As sit-coms of the past, I’ve always thought that BARNEY MILLER was one of the “closest to real-life” shows :-)

    That’s my two cents!

    Thanks for a great post, Lee!

    Kathleen A. Ryan
    VP, Long Island Sisters in Crime
    Member-at-large, NY/TriState SinC
    MWA-NY member
    PSWA (Public Safety Writers Association) member

  • Lee Lofland

    Thanks for the input, Kathleen.

    Keep in mind, everyone, that rules and regulations vary from department to department, even within the same state. Therefore, to keep your story realistic, if that’s your goal, you should check with the department where your story is set.

  • Chief Scott Silverii, Ph.D.

    Thank you for this awesome list. As a life-long cop, I cannot watch police drama or “reality” shows.
    People would be surprised how often these same list topics come up in court, or actual police work. Jurors wait to see testimony like they see programs on tv. It’s not reality folks.

    Great job and awesome comments.

  • Anita

    HeeHee, loved the list! I watch lots of cop shows (NCIS, NCIS:LA, Blacklist, Burn Notice, The Mentalist, Castle etc) and love them. I never sit down thinking anything is going to be real – it’s my little escape from reality. So when the door flies off its hinges after being tapped with a pair of heels, the weapon is cocked, and the lab technician in a vest leads the way over the guys in the full swat gear I just chuckle and enjoy the fiction *grin*.

  • Snowprince

    12a – Revolvers DO NOT have safeties/de-cocking levers.

    21 – Most CSI/SID technicians ARE NOT sworn police officers and have NO peace officer powers. They DO NOT interview/interrogate/arrest suspects.

  • Leann Sweeney

    Just read a book by one my FAVORITE authors and in the first chapter, someone slip off the safety on his GLOCK. No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It just ruined the entire book. Thanks for writing this reminder of how lack of research can pull some readers right out of a story.

  • Lynn Willis

    Great post, Lee. I’m currently reading Hank’s THE WRONG GIRL and had to laugh at your remark about finding a parking space in Boston. Hank’s MC Jane Ryland gripes about it so cheers to Hank!

  • Terry Odell

    I must step in for a second. The Glock thing is apparently the #1 firearms mistake writers make. I asked Robert Crais if he got flack for the safety thing in one of his books. He said, “Every. Damn. Day.” I also attended a writing craft workshop given by John Sandford, who DOES know guns. He pointed out that over-editing can lead to problems, such as the time he decided he’d referred to a weapon generically throughout the book and thought it would be better to use a specific, so he changed many of the usages to “Glock” BUT, he pointed out, he didn’t reread the manuscript yet another time, and had totally forgotten he’d had his character thumb the safety off his weapon earlier in the book. So, even those who know can screw things up.

    Lee — respectfully, you need to get EDITORS of crime fiction to start reading your blog. They’re the last eyes on the book, and clearly they know very little about the subject.

    Terry’s Place

  • Lee Lofland

    Terry – respectfully, perhaps crime WRITERS should get their editors to start reading this blog. After all, writers get paid by their editors to write. I do this for free. :)

  • Chris Norbury

    Great stuff, Lee. Keep preaching the truth about real life cops and robbers. I know I’ll use your list in my writing.

  • Patricia Bradley

    I found this blog because I entered my first chapter in a writing contest and on the 7th page I had written: Cordite burned her nose. Thankfully one of the judges raked me over the coals and suggested that I read The Graveyard Shift. Now this is the first place I go to do research. Thanks for all of the great information!

  • Susan Paturzo

    Lee, I think you could have a wildly popular blog devoted to spotting the flaws in books, TV, and movies! How did you manage to stop at only 20?

    I liked #8. The Denver PD has a “board up” service on call 24/7 so that if they have to break a window to gain entry the scene can then be secured.

    And my personal peeve has to do with the way they handle–or mishandle–the bodies. I hate it when a medical examiner takes a cursory glance at the body at the scene and then gives a time of death down to the quarter hour. Or when the detectives paw the body, turn it over, go through pockets, etc., etc. before the ME has even arrived.

    Fun post!

  • Lee Lofland

    Susan – You know, in some areas it may take the M.E./Coroner or their representative quite a long time to make it out to a crime scene, if they show up at all. Therefore, detectives will go through the pockets searching for ID, etc. Time is crucial when solving murders, so knowing the victim’s name and address asap can sometimes lead an investigator straight to the killer.

  • Jeff

    If you don’t mind, this question pops into my mind every so often: I imagine most every department/agency has a standard “issue” sidearm… do the majority of departments/agencies permit their officers to carry “other” sidearms/calibers of weapons? And, what about bullets… does the department/agency provide them, or???

  • Pete Aldin

    Love #2. How many times have we watched characters cock/rack the slide not once but TWICE before firing. Really annoys me.

  • Terry Odell

    Point taken, Lee — it’s just a matter of expanding your target audience, but I suppose we authors should point our editors in this direction–although if they’re contracted to a publishing house, the publishers ought to try to send them this way.

  • Lee Lofland

    We need to host an Editors’ Police Academy.

  • Kathy Crouch

    Loved the pointers. But hey TV is fantasy not reality at least to me lol. But these are good points. I once pointed out a scene to my nephew and said you know that would never happen. But he argued it would. I let him think that and shook my head.

  • Michele

    I am always amazed at how clean crime scenes are. And how clean the bad guy’s hideout is. There might be a few things thrown around, but the floors are usually shiny clean. Yeah, right.

  • emeraldcite

    I have a problem with number 3. What if they’re staying in the fleabag motel so they can save their pennies for high-grade military tech?


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