How Storytelling Can Drive Cops and Scientists Crazy

There’s a rule in my household ― when I watch TV crime shows with my family, I’m not allowed to comment on the episode. This comes from years of watching shows with me and listening to me gripe about all the things that are wrong with the episode. There’s usually a lot they do wrong.

Sometimes I think it would be more fun to watch TV if I didn’t know as much as I do. But I have a significant knowledge of forensics from years of detailed study, and a growing knowledge of homicide and general police protocols, and there’s no going back now.

Last year, while attending Bloody Words 2010 in Toronto, it was comforting to sit in on one of the forensics talks (given by a member of the Toronto Police Services) and to hear many of my own views reflected back to me. Apparently, flashy TV storytelling doesn’t just irritate scientists; it really irritates law enforcement as well.

But this kind of flashy storytelling isn’t just seen in TV screenplays. It can also be found in crime fiction. And nothing jerks me out of a story faster than inaccurate details.

So what kind of issues really drive the scientist in me crazy?

  • Science that is conducted at the speed of light ― when DNA or mass spec results only take minutes. At best these protocols take hours; I know, I’ve done them myself. In reality, if a state lab is involved, it can take months or years to get results back.
  • Test results that are rarely ambiguous and usually point directly as a single suspect. Let me assure you, as much as we’d love it to be black and white, science often isn't.
  • Every case is solved successfully. I realize that TV screenwriters need to have 22 cases per year and they can’t leave the majority of them unsolved if they want to satisfy their audience. But leaving the odd case unresolved is realistic and would open the door to some great character-based storytelling.
  • Police officers who blithely cut legal corners or disregard Miranda rights because the plot requires that they do so. In many cases, a little more time spent working out the plot would provide a legal way to achieve the same goals.
  • Scientists with unrealistic skills. In reality, scientists that are experts in their field are very specialized in their specific niche. In other words, they don’t do DNA and fingerprinting and ballistics with equal proficiency. In reality, different areas of the lab perform specific tests. For very specialized testing, evidence is often sent off-site, perhaps even out of state.
  • Unrealistic science. Shining a black light on untreated blood will not make it fluoresce, no matter how convenient that might be.
  • Unrealistic databases. AFIS is a great example of this. The FBI runs a system called IAFIS, but it is in no way as useful as the TV version of AFIS. With only 66 million civilian prints in the system, the chances of finding a match (especially to a partial) is much lower than you would think considering how successful TV detectives are. Realistically, this system takes four to five hours to process a single request, and then police departments will not accept those results as a positive match until a human expert has compared the prints.
  • Expert witness who conveniently have connections/previous ties to the department, thereby undermining their credibility at a crucial moment in a trial. In reality, witnesses are screened with excruciating care, ensuring that this rarely happens.

My point in this list is that a lot of this could have been avoided if a little more time was spent plotting. Yes, in a forty-two-minute TV show, they can’t write in a two month wait for DNA results, but sometimes they swing so far the other way that it’s laughable. Use realism if you can and let your characters react to it. The trick to writing realism is to find a way to hook your reader and them keep them drawn into the story through characterization, no matter how long the lab results take.

I can’t be the only one with a list of pet peeves when it comes to storytelling. What drives you crazy?

Photo by striatic