Friday, July 1, 2011

Can Too Much Forensic Science Smother Your Fiction?

By guest blogger D.P. Lyle, author, doctor, and forensics expert (The Writer's Forensics Blog)

If you write crime fiction in any genre—hard boiled, cozy, thriller, romantic, literary—you must have some knowledge of forensic science. Even if your story doesn’t include DNA or fingerprints or toxicology or autopsies or any of the other forensic techniques, you have to know what’s out there. Failure to do so can sink your story.

You might not directly use any of these techniques in your yarn but you must acknowledge that they exist or risk losing the reader. You see, readers are smart. Especially readers of crime fiction. They know how crimes should be investigated and recoil when simple, common sense things are avoided. For example, if your killer breaks and enters and commits a murder, your investigator must consider such things as fingerprints, shoe prints, hair and fiber, tire tracks, DNA, and many other types of evidence. Okay, so maybe your little old blue-haired sleuth doesn’t use these procedures herself but she must be aware of them if she is to be clever enough to solve the confusing crime you have created for her. And the police that are also investigating the crime definitely should. Avoiding at the very least a passing mention of these techniques will cause your reader to lose confidence in you as a storyteller.

Delving into these techniques in any detail isn’t necessary but letting the results of these tests impact your characters is essential. It’s not the science that pushes the story forward but rather the effect the science has on your characters that’s the driving force.

What about the other end of the spectrum? Can too much science kill the story? If you stop for lengthy scientific explanations will the forward momentum of your story die?


Remember, the story is not about the science, it’s about the characters. The science is not important per se, it’s the effect of the science on the characters that drives the story. The methods of DNA analysis are boring. The details of toxicological testing will flat out put you to sleep. But if the DNA points a finger at your innocent protagonist or the toxicology results suggest that the old man died of poisoning and not a heart attack, tension and conflict follow. And that’s what drives a story.

In my latest Dub Walker novel, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, there are many forensic science techniques in play. Autopsy findings, traumatic wound analysis, ballistics, toxicology, and time of death determination to name a few. But none of these are the story. These techniques might solve one problem but inevitable generate more questions. When one thing is figured out four more possibilities emerge. And each of these apply pressure to Dub as he tries to uncover the person, or persons, responsible for a series of bizarre murders perpetrated by someone with incredible surgical skills and state of the art toys.

Even my other new book, Royal Pains, First Do No Harm, which is a comedy/drama tied to the popular TV series and not necessarily crime fiction, contains forensic science. The testing itself is never discussed but the results, at first confusing, ultimately allow Dr. Hank Lawson to zero in on the bad guys.

Character and conflict. That’s what’s important in storytelling. Science merely adds to the conflict and ramps up the pressure. Never lose sight of the fact that it’s a character under pressure that makes readers turn pages and your stories will carry those readers into the world you’ve created.

How much forensic science detail do you like in your crime fiction?


  1. Great stuff here, Dr. Lyle!

    How much forensic science detail do I like then add into my crime fiction?

    Here's the scoop:

    For my new, Cozy Cash Mysteries, first THUG GUARD and now for my August release LIP GLOCK, my characters are taking me through these outrageously LOL adventures. And each time we get to another dead guy or chick, we stop and research - using your site and books - if these people could have died "like that" and "why" and "what kind of evidence or tests would show that and who dunnit".

    Cheers to that!!!

    U rock, Dr. Lyle!!!

    Thank U for all the superfab forensics scoop!!!

  2. I love to learn a LITTLE from my fiction. If I want to take an in-depth course, I'll look elsewhere.

    As usual, some terrific information from The Expert. Thanks, Dr. Lyle.

  3. Excellent post, Doug! I'll bear your great advice in mind for my fiction editing, which is almost exclusively thrillers, romantic suspense and mysteries. Personally, I'm not crazy about a huge amount of detail on the forensics, but it's always good to some info on it all along as the investigation progresses, to learn more about this fascinating science and about criminology in general.

    Thanks, LJ, for getting "the" Dr. D.P. Lyle to guest post with us! And looking forward to seeing you at Craftfest next week, Doug!

  4. D.P., thanks for this great post. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received for my suspense novels in The Profiler Series is, "it sounds like you really know profiling." I knew nothing about profiling when I began writing, but I felt it was so important to avoid simple mistakes that would turn off readers such as yourself.

    I was pleased by this comment because I did a year's worth of work into profiling - before I ever put one word to paper. I sooooo respect what you do and how it's presented by authors.

  5. I love your comment about new questions arriving when you answer one. Kind of like writing. If the POV character isn't on scene during forensics, I don't think you need to show a lot of details. Letting the reader know what the reports prove or disprove without all the technical jargon is enough for me. And I agree. It's all about characters and conflict.

    Terry's Place

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