Writing and Weaponry

The panelists on “The Pen and The Sword: Arming the Written Word” (Sat 4PM Hyatt Hanover C-E) brought a variety of perspectives to their subject.  Jonathan Maberry has trained in the martial arts for decades and has written several horror, post-apocalyptic, and thriller series, some for adults and others for young adults, as well as comic book scripts.

Moderator Kevin Dockery, who is also the Armory track director, spent 14 years in the military and has worked with small arms all his adult life. In addition, he is a gunsmith and sometimes consults for writers and others, including U.S. Navy SEALs. Dockery has written multiple nonfiction books on the military and weaponry.

Dr. Charles E. Gannon has written award-winning nonfiction and military science fiction. A former Fulbright Fellow and filmmaker, he has experience in the martial arts, riflery, and fencing.  He has also written movie scripts and, as a member of the SIGMA science fiction think tank, consults with government agencies, only some of which he can name.

Comic book artist and writer Mike Grell has been working in comics for 41 years, using various types of weaponry in his books. He informed the audience he also “likes longbows and swords” and is “the man who put the hood on Green Arrow.”

The panel emphasized the importance of research and verification in writing scenes with weaponry.  Maberry noted that the writer doesn’t always control accuracy and related a story about a book of his in which a character used a Glock 26. Attempting to be helpful, the editor had the character take off the safety on the Glock. Unfortunately, the Glock safety is not a button or lever on the gun’s side but is incorporated in the trigger loop.

One mistake the panelists cited as frequently appearing in movies and television shows is one character killing another by driving the nasal bone into the brain. Maberry said smashing upward on someone’s nose will break the cartilage and cause a great deal of pain, bleeding, and other unpleasant effects, but will not drive the bone into the brain. He traced the origin of this error to newspaper accounts of a hockey player who was hit in the face with a flying puck. The puck fractured the bone and drove bone chips into the brain, as widely reported in the papers, but was a different sort of injury.

The panel extensively discussed the problems inherent in being too accurate about ways to succeed with illegal or dangerous activities. Dockery said he uses something called the MacGyver Rule, which involves doing as the MacGyver writers did and changing something important so that the sequence of events detailed in the story will not actually produce an explosion or other harmful effect.

Grell and Dockery cited thriller authors whose books were so accurate about things like obtaining false passports that laws were changed to bar these methods. Maberry added that thriller writers often create scenarios for the military.

Gannon added that the issue of too much accuracy applies mostly to the near future or mid-future. By the far future, he said, changes in the application of physics will render the issue moot. He went on to cite the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.

Gannon noted that liquid propellants for weaponry also evolve and that avoiding using the propellant’s actual name will help keep the book from seeming dated. He added that many such propellants are toxic but not necessarily caustic (flesh-eating).

Gannon recommended that authors consider whether the weapons they create would even exist. While people may want to build a certain device, he explained, they generally can’t muster the political will and funding to do so until that weapon becomes necessary. Broad adoption depends on need, and authors should look at whether the weapon is necessary or merely desirable.

Dockery added that the desirability of a particular weapon also involves logistical issues. How hard is it to ship? Is it driven by electronics or propellant? He also noted that any weapon an alien character carries was designed to work on that character’s species.

Returning to the topic of research, Grell added that writers attempting to consult experts should verify that the person is an expert, as opposed to an “armchair enthusiast.” For example, someone who makes swords may be very good at doing so but have little knowledge of how the weapons are actually used.

Maberry said that possessing a black belt is not a guarantee of expertise. He explained that there is no regulation to standardize who gets a black belt. In addition, martial arts are taught as a sport, not for combative purposes. Martial artists are not always aware of that distinction. People with real experience, such as combat veterans, are better sources and may even share information the writer doesn’t know enough to ask about.

He observed that movie and television fights are slowed down from the pace at which they would occur in real life. Otherwise, he said, the fight is over too quickly and isn’t entertaining. He said the writer then has to include more fights or build in things to extend the clash. Dockery interjected, “Given equal levels of skill, bet on the big guy.” He went on to note that sometimes realism gives way to entertainment value.

Maberry said that the outcome of interspecies conflict could be influenced by the level of ignorance or expertise each combatant possesses about the other’s anatomy. Gannon added that authors have more freedom in fantasy and that, as long as they are consistent, they don’t need to follow the rules of physics.

Grell observed that most species start out fighting among themselves, even if they eventually fight others, and that weapons design is influenced by the enemies people expect to face. Picking up on the consistency point, he quoted Batman writer Denny O’Neill to the effect that while a scene might be BS, “it’s our BS scene.” The writer, Grell said, sets up the rules and internal logic but must then adhere to them.

Dockery reminded the audience that all work, even magic, requires energy and must have a source.

Maberry suggested layering in vital information before the fight scene in which it matters. Slowing down the fight to relay that information hurts the pace. Gannon agreed, adding that a fight is action, not the time for digressions or for introducing anything other than the consequences of the action.

Grell said there should be no dialogue in a fight unless it’s extraordinarily important and, in a comic book, no long captions.

In summary, the panel emphasized the importance of research, accuracy tempered by the desire to not write a manual for bad acts, and internal consistency.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.