Why is it that nobody in science fiction, especially the bad guys, can shoot straight?

In all my classes on writing, including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I belabor the point that SF and fantasy are inherently unrealistic, but that audiences crave plausibility. The rules for faster-than-light travel or the biology of the dragon are set by the author, but once set, must be plausibly maintained. A few things I’ve seen lately have made me start thinking about the plausibility of gunfire.

Starting with a bit of “full disclosure”: I do not own a gun and have never fired a gun in my life. I have never served in the military and have not been trained in firearms. That being the case, like many other people, I have to rely on some degree of common sense in order to figure out if it’s plausible that this character can hit that target while another character’s shot goes astray.

Here are a couple of cases, one from real life and one from fiction that we can look at.

In April of 2009 Somali pirates stormed the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama and kidnapped the captain, who they held for ransom aboard a tiny enclosed lifeboat that was later taken under tow by the US Navy vessel Bainbridge. SEAL Team Six—the same guys who would later kill Osama Bin Laden—were called in to engineer a rescue. A couple of them laid down on the rolling deck of the Bainbridge and shot the pirates on the rolling lifeboat through tiny portholes, killing all of the pirates and leaving the Maersk Alabama’s captain completely untouched.

Had I seen that in a Hollywood action movie I would have groaned and told everyone I know how “unrealistic” that movie was—no way (based on my total lack of specific knowledge or experience) could anyone shoot that well under those conditions and achieve a perfect result.

But it did actually happen. No stunt men, no special effects.

And then there are the Imperial Stormtroopers of the Star Wars Universe…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Epheros says:

    Here is a link that explains it…

    Roger Ebert came up with the term. You are right about the unrealistic level of ineptitude of these guys, or the impossibly overreaching skill of the good guys. That is one of the things that gets me knocked out of the suspension of disbelief. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done right, like the Clive Owen film, Shoot’em Up. That was absurd, entertaining, and had a few really cool, if not plausible, moves that stood out. Even Mythbusters took a shot at one of the feats of skill from this movie.

    If, as a writer, you are trying to up the ante on creating tension and drama and all around making things worse for your protagonist then there are a lot of real world examples of things that can turns things from bad to worse. It always seems sloppy writing to upgrade your hero to invincibility status just to show how bad-ass he/she is and to lower the threat capability of the enemy. The Star Trek Redshirts, the Stormtrooper, the Cobra infantry and leadership, etc. these guys could never be real world threat being as bad as they are at the job they are specifically trained for.

    As their leader I would have fired them (or used their corpses as a lesson) at the first sign of failure. 🙂

    • Philip Athans says:

      I have a copy of Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary, signed by the author no less, in which this rule first appears. This pre-dates stuff like TV Tropes and is a terrific How NOT To book for writers! My personal favorite:

      Fat Man Formula.
      In all movies where groups of men live together, it is always the fat one who can not be trusted.

      His example: No Escape, but see also Jurassic Park, The Stand, etc.

  2. abuzzinid says:

    Good points. You also have to remember that The Force is another factor to be considered. I always assumed they had more luck in that department because The Force was with them. (Yes, I know, laugh it up!) That helped me suspend me disbelief. Plus it’s just cool. If I wanted complete realism, I’d read non-fiction and watch documentaries. It worked because the main characters Luke, Han and Leia had no direct experience with The Force and just sorta went with it. In my own fiction do expect that to be enough? Nope, but I’m not George Lucas bringing something grand and new and stunning to the screen.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I would buy that, actually, that Luke has a some inherent property of the Force that makes him harder to hit, but if WE have to fill that in and it isn’t at least hinted at in the story, that’s us making excuses for a lapse in storytelling. And of course this is 48-year-old me being a bit cynical and detail oriented whereas 12-year-old me sat in the theater in a state of transcendental awe. Go figure.

  3. If you delve into the universe of Star Wars a little further, you will find that the inability to hit the broad side of a barn is based upon the decline in weapon quality. During Ep I, II & II you can see the weapons and platforms decline from “hand crafted” pieces of quality to mass produced but low quality we see in IV, V & VI. This inherit drop in quality, much like going from a German sports car to an Indian utility truck, is the authors explanation for the drop in troop quality. This is also coupled with the fall from a volunteer well trained military (e.g. US or Australian) to a conscript clone based military (e.g. Chinese or Iran) were the troops can pull the trigger but use a “pray and spray” technique rather than a well-practiced “aim and hit” technique of their volunteer peers. The Star Wars background also explains that Storm Troopers are no where as good as their Clone Trooper predecessors hence the high survival rate of the Empire’s enemies in IV, V & VI.

    So lessons for any author, if your troops are crap shots then make sure you go into some explanation as to why…

    • Philip Athans says:

      I love it, but let’s be honest: That was a retrofit. And it tends to make Obi-Wan look even dumber for identifying them as being “precise.” But you are 100% right–your bad guys can be great shots or terrible shots as long as it’s at least reasonably clear WHY either is the case. But at the very least, don’t say they’re awesome then show them sucking with no further explanation.

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