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. Are these guys the Galactic Empire’s version of SEAL Team Six? If so, no wonder the empire was so easy to beat. These men in white couldn’t hit the broad side of a space barn. And this in a high-tech universe with targeting computers (which are not as good as the Force, but still . . .) and so on. How can we have smart bombs and super soldiers and they don’t?

I’ve seen interviews with military helicopter pilots and tank crews who’ve said that they hit everything they aim at. The technology has basically put them in a can’t miss situation, here in 2013. But the crew of Star Trek: Enterprise’s Enterprise NX-01, a hundred years from now, flail around, along with their even more high-tech enemies, shooting at walls and bulkheads with energy beam weapons you can dodge? How would a phaser or blaster ever replace a gun if the projectile not only moves more slowly than a bullet but so slowly you can just step out of the way?

This is straining plausibility in service of . . . what?

Well, that’s actually a pretty easy question to answer: The lives of the heroes.

If the Imperial Stormtroopers were the Galactic Empire’s answer to SEAL Team Six, Luke Skywalker would never have made it off Tatooine.

And yes, here I am again, using the multi-billion dollar Star Wars franchise as an example of what not to do. Believe me, I am fully aware of how that must sound.

Yesterday my daughter and I watched the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, which was hilarious—a must-see—and throughout the movie I found myself jerking back and forth between a full-throated support of the pissed off fans and a full-throated support of poor beleaguered George Lucas.

One of the myriad complaints about the 1997 reissue of Star Wars (and no, I will not call it “A New Hope”) is not just that Greedo shoots at Han first in the cantina but that Greedo misses from about three feet away. I found that fascinating. Most of the interviewees complained about the damage that did to the character of Han Solo, but then is the complaint that, if Greedo shot first, Han should have died before ever lifting off from Mos Eisley?

For what it’s worth I agree with everyone but George Lucas on that point. Having Greedo shoot first changed the very nature of the story and the character Han Solo, and did so by stretching plausibility by making Greedo such a pitifully bad shot.

And at the same time, I have to ask those same fans who railed against Greedo’s inability to shoot straight: What about the Stormtroopers?

What are you shooting at, soldier?

What are you shooting at, soldier?

I can buy that Greedo is a low-level thug and might not have much facility with firearms, but the character who acts as the movie’s primary source of information and wisdom, Obi-Wan Kenobi, identifies the Stormtroopers as being “precise” in their attack on the jawas. But then Luke and Leia can swing across the Death Star chasm without even being grazed? And here the Stormtroopers, unlike the Navy SEALS in April 2009, are on a stable platform. Really?

There’s a question you never want your readers to ask:


Really, George Lucas?

Unlike the rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama, we, as authors of science fiction and fantasy, don’t have reality to fall back on. To me it seems impossible, but they actually did it.

Stormtroopers blindly shooting hither and yon without a single on-target shot, well, that’s just as difficult to believe, and Mr. Lucas doesn’t have reality to fall back on.

In a movie like Star Wars, to quote another movie from the same era (The Big Chill) audiences can be content to “just let art . . . flow over you” if the rest of it is as f-ing cool as Star Wars, which, in the spring of 1977, was absolutely the coolest f-ing thing ever in the history of everything.

But most of us won’t get that pass. We have to sell stories to science fiction and fantasy readers. And to quote yet another movie from that time, Ghostbusters, “they expect results.”

SF and fantasy readers will keep track of the number of bullets fired and will begin to hate your story, and you, if your hero’s six-shot revolver fires a seventh round. They will wonder, like me, why these soldiers can’t shoot someone just because the target is swinging on a rope, let along sitting at the other side of a restaurant booth.

Research, people. If your story is set in the real world find, like I did in Devils of the Endless Deep, the detailed description of a real gun online and not only know how many rounds are in a clip but keep track of the shots fired as you write.

Did a character who knows how to shoot (a soldier, a cop, or just a gun enthusiast) miss his or her target? Okay, but why? And is that why plausible? Maybe his hand is shaking because he’s wounded or in pain. Is there something about the environment? It’s foggy so he’s having trouble seeing, or the gravity on the planet is heavier than on Earth and he’s having trouble lifting the gun? Those are the things that can save your hero’s life without having to just fall back on, “Um, well, I guess they just, y’know, missed.”

SF and fantasy readers are smart and critical and we demand results!

—Philip Athans


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.

  4. Pingback: OUR FLIGHT TIME TODAY WILL BE…? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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