Out on the Range: Writing a Literary Gunfight by Nick Kolakowski

Nick Kolakowski

A few months ago, as a break from the final editing of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, I watched both John Wick films back-to-back. For those uninitiated in the series, John Wick is a master assassin (played with a surprising amount of rage by Keanu Reeves, that great cipher of modern cinema) who, despite his reputation as death incarnate, seems to attract an insane amount of insult and gunfire from other assassins. Over the course of two films, various antagonists kill his dog, steal his car, blow up his house, and generally turn his life into the equivalent of a country song written by Sam Peckinpah on a nasty bender.

Both movies succeed in large part because of the fine fight choreography. Reeves really sells his character’s combat abilities. Every time he empties his weapon at a room of random baddies, he reloads practically before his original clip hits the floor.

In preparation for the role, Reeves spent untold hours on the range, plinking away at targets. Seeing John Wick (or another film in which actors demonstrate a high degree of firearms skill, such as Heat) shows what a difference that kind of intensive experience can make in terms of cinematic verisimilitude.

Like crime filmmaking, crime writing often involves a lot of guns — but writers tend to approach their firearms research in wildly different ways. I know that Bracken MacLeod, author of the excellent Stranded and Mountain Home, doesn’t have his characters use a gun he hasn’t fired in real life. Yet many other authors tend to leave the mechanics of gunplay totally up to their imaginations, sometimes with mixed results.

I recommend squeezing a few real triggers before writing a fictional shoot ’em up, if you get a chance. Midway through the last draft of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, I spent an afternoon at a range in upstate New York, firing off shotgun rounds at clay pigeons that definitely had it coming, and the experience affected my character work a good deal (even at that late point in the process).

In real life, hitting a moving target is a difficult proposition for the relative newbie: only a small fraction of the clay pigeons tossed into the air for my shooting pleasure actually felt the sting of my shot.

Second, guns are heavy: while I consider myself a fit individual, repeatedly raising and lowering a long gun for several hours — and absorbing all that recoil — made my muscles scream bloody murder.

Third, chances are good that someone else on the range will blast away with the considerable skill. You are allowed to envy these people — but watch what they do, because their movements can help texture any of your characters who know what they’re doing with firearms.

That crossfire hurricane of an afternoon compelled me to tailor A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps in some crucial ways. The book’s main character, Bill, might be a peerless hustler, but he’s not much of a fighter. This simple fact escalates into a real problem for him during the grand finale, when he’s forced to take on a small army of people who want to kill him. Fortunately, he has a shotgun. Unfortunately, he’s not very good at using it: he can’t aim, and he gets exhausted quickly. In a situation like that, having a character who’s less John Wick and more Wile E. Coyote offers a lot of potential for suspense: will he manage to reload his weapon before some baddie fills him with enough lead to make him into a paperweight?

On the flip side of things, there’s Fiona, the biggest badass in the book. In her case, doing hands-on research would have been impossible; although I’ve fired most of the weapons she uses, I’ll never have her ability to aim, shoot, and reload on the run (or behind the wheel). Some of her tricks are based on what buddies in the Army have told me they’ve witnessed Special Forces operators do, and that sort of detail helped keep things somewhat grounded during the writing; but I also leaned heavily on my imagination. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Here are some other “rules of the range” I’ve picked up from crime-fiction writers over the years:

• People run out of ammunition at some point. If it’s your short story or novel, make sure it happens at the worst possible moment.

• Pistols, and even shotguns are not cannons. Bullets in movies tend to send characters flying several feet across a room. If it’s a Michael Bay flick, something will also explode, probably in slow motion. Movies, to put it mildly, are not real life.

• It takes skill to write a good action scene. “The most boring thing in the world is an action-movie script with a lot of guns firing,” a screenwriter friend told me once, and he was right: the word “bang” (and its various synonyms) is not progressively more interesting the more often you repeat it on a page. While a gun battle may seem tense or exciting in your head, you need to vary things up order to keep the reader interested. ((And if you don’t believe my friend about the “boring” part, hunt online for Walter Hill’s script adaptation of John Woo’s The Killer. It might have resulted in a good remake, if they’d ever produced it, but in written form it’s a cure for insomnia.)

• Know your weaponry. A reader with extensive knowledge of firearms once sent me a gentle email about a short story I wrote for the late (and very missed) magazine Thuglit. He took issue with how I mistakenly described a five-shot weapon as having six. And by “gentle,” I mean “filled with profanity.” A little research would have spared my forehead the slap I self-delivered.

Happy (literary) hunting!