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How to Write a Believable Police Investigation Scene in a Script.

Expert advice from a former Federal Agent.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
May 27, 2020 17 comments
police investigation scene script

How to write a believable police investigation scene in your script.

Thankfully, screenwriting isn’t just about “writing what you know.” It’s obviously also about creating and recreating worlds that you might have zero experience of.

So let’s say you want to write a script that involves a crime scene or police investigation scene… But you’ve never been involved with law enforcement.

Many aspiring writers don’t see a problem here. They just dive into writing the script—and fill in the blanks using their imagination.

They feel that because they’ve watched so many police procedural shows, they have a good enough idea of how crime scene investigators operate.

The vast majority then wind up suffering from a severe lack of believability.

Professional writers take a different tack.

They do research.

Writing a crime scene or a whole police investigation script with all the correct details in place will help make for a better story and, ultimately, a better chance of a sale.

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Introducing Kirk Flashner: a law enforcement technical advisor…

One way of doing this is to enlist the help of a professional advisor who can read your script and let you know what you’re getting right in your crime scene and what you’re getting wrong.

If you’re writing a crime-based feature script or TV show, you should definitely consider hiring the expert services of a guy like Kirk Flashner.

For almost 27 years he was officially employed as a Federal Agent for the United States Government. He is now a technical advisor for film and TV—reviewing scripts to ensure technical accuracy for law enforcement practices and procedures.

Kirk has been kind enough to make a list of the more common misconceptions he finds in scripts when it comes to police investigation scenes and you can find his contact details at the end of the post.

Even if you’re not writing a crime-based script, you can apply the points below to your own genre by always remembering to never be satisfied with “I think that’s how it works.”

So without further ado, here’s Kirk on how to avoid the common mistakes writers make when writing a police investigation scene.

Mistake #1: Academy trainees conducting investigations.

Screenwriters sometimes have characters that are still trainees attending a law enforcement academy and at the same time conducting investigations.

The best example of this can be found in The Silence of the Lambs.

Agent Trainee Clarice Starling misses a considerable amount of her New Agent Training at the highly regimented FBI Academy, to work basically alone on a dangerous investigation with minimal supervision. In the end, she also somehow still graduates on time with her class.

In fact, trainees do not conduct investigations while in academy training.

Missing training to conduct outside investigations will almost certainly get them fired. Under the best of circumstances, the trainee would still have to go back and remediate the missed training.

Mistake #2: Arrests and searches without a warrant.

An immediate search or arrest without a warrant may be an exciting plot device, but it’s only very rarely done by investigators.

In most instances, searches and arrests are done with warrants. If the matter is urgent, locations to be searched and/or person(s) to be arrested are kept under surveillance while a warrant is obtained.

Searches and arrests without warrants are likely come under scrutiny afterward and will require the investigator to clearly state their reason for the urgency of circumstances to the prosecutor before acceptance for prosecution, in front of a grand jury, or in court.

The investigator must be able to clearly communicate a very good reason for the urgency of the case—such as the suspect is about to leave the country or immediately commit a crime. Otherwise, it can go bad fast.

police investigation scene script

Mistake #3: Use of minors as confidential informants.

When writers use a minor child character as a law Confidential Informant (CI), they seem to leave out one very important fact. They’re minors!

Using minors as CIs is sometimes done by law enforcement. But it is not quite as easy as picking them up on the street and taking them somewhere for a discussion.

The use of minors by law enforcement is generally done very carefully, almost always under the guidance of the prosecutor and with the permission of their parent or guardian.

Law enforcement officers who use minors as CIs especially without formal permission from parents or guardians are generally looking at job termination or worse.

Mistake #4: Sloppy evidence handling.

Physical evidence is not generally just tossed in the trunk of an investigator’s vehicle and then left there for weeks without any official law enforcement custody records, and then admitted as evidence in court.

Law enforcement agencies have strict rules about recording who had the evidence, how long it was in their possession, and where it was stored.

When evidence is taken into custody during a search warrant, it is logged into an inventory list.

All of this together makes up what is called “chain of custody.” Not properly following these procedures can cause a prosecutor not to take the case, or drop it.

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A word from Kirk…

Screenwriters are only limited by their own imagination, and that is a good thing. However, misconceptions about how law enforcement really works is also limited by their imagination, but that is where I come in.

I can review your work and provide a review of what may not be technically correct, and let you decide what to do next with your story.

I can also work with you more in-depth to help you craft your story around correct law enforcement practices and procedures.

When I review a script, it is a bit like conducting an investigation. Each one is unique, and you never know what you are going to find.

Let’s see how we can work together. You can contact me via info[at]flashner.com or at my website. I look forward to hearing from you and learning about you and your story.

Conclusion.

Make sure you don’t fall into the same trap as many aspiring screenwriters out there:

Writing about crime scenes and police investigations while not being sure they’re correct. But leaving them as they appear in your imagination because “no one will know the difference.”

The thing is, some readers might.

And even if they don’t, they will like your script a hell of a lot more if they feel they’re in the hands of a writer who’s taken the time to thoroughly research their subject matter.

This not only shows dedication but also helps draw them into the story, putting you above all those writers who haven’t bothered to make sure their police investigation scene feels authentic.

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How much research do you do before writing a crime scene or a police investigation? Do you dive into the writing, even though you only have a vague idea about the subject matter? Or do you do your research first? Let us know in the comments section below!

police investigation scene script

Enjoyed this post? Read more about scenes here…

How to Write a Fight Scene in a Script

8 Out of 10 Writers Have Been Told How to Write a Scene the Wrong Way

8 Keys to Writing a Scene That Pops Off the Page and Grabs the Reader

[© Photo credits: Unsplash, Flashner Consulting]

17 Comments
  1. Oscar R says:

    Great post as usual guys. Keep up the good and very professional work you are an inspiration

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for being part of the ride, Oscar!

  2. Sanet Smit says:

    My current project is based on the drug methamphetamine (also known as ice). This is the project Script Reader Pro is helping me with currently. I’m honoured to receive professional help with it. My project in the pipeline is going to be about two lawyers who represent a mafia family. The twist is this is not just another mafia film as there are very unusual activities involved which the FBI will get involved and the lawyers will need to flee to save their own lives. I reckon there will be just as much research involved with the first project.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out on here, Sanet! It’s been a pleasure working with you and good luck with the script.

  3. Indy says:

    Having recently co-written an FBI procedural, I went off instinct in the early drafts and relied on conversations I’d had with members of law enforcement I’d had over the years… but once the draft was where we wanted it, we consulted with a 21 year veteran of the FBI. Happily. his notes were minimal, but the notes he did give us were invaluable in terms of improving the terminology and procedures to make our show feel more grounded and realistic. While there are certain areas we opted to take creative license with, in the case of something like telling a story about these people, you’d be doing yourself (and your story) a disservice by not getting your material vetted. Highly recommend.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, thanks for sharing, Indy. 🙂

  4. Roberto Vitale says:

    Hi there and thanks for posting this. I am currently working on a story that has Civilian Police, Army Police and Army Soldiers! Phew!! Some good points have been covered here. Regardless of whatever story I write, I always spend more time THINKING & RESEARCHING than writing to begin once I have the basic concept. As I research more and more, this then helps me come up with better more realistic scenes, more than often changing or readapting plot points and more dynamic dialogue plus the technicalities of procedures. Thanks ScriptReaderPro…love ya work! 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Roberto! That’s a good point about how the research itself can actually bring up story ideas you might not otherwise have thought of.

  5. Todd says:

    To echo the sentiment of this article: As an OEF vet who worked in military intelligence for over a decade (98X, 98C), it absolutely drives me up the wall to see how improperly the salute ALONE is handled in most films and TV shows, never mind anything involving technical information or tactical maneuvers (or Top Secret clearances!). You’ve got enlisted personnel saluting NCO’s, everybody’s calling everybody sir… it’s just ridiculous. And what a SIMPLE detail to get wrong too! This kind of thing pulls me right out of the experience, and it’s a big turn-off because I know to expect this same level of “care” for the rest of the production.

    Military vets are certainly easier to find than former FBI agents, and a good portion are technical experts in their field, so if you’re writing about something to do with the military, find one and ask! If the vet you’re talking to doesn’t know the subject matter in question, keep looking. If your story is about Marines, find a Marine. If it involves the Navy, find a Sailor. Don’t expect someone fresh out of basic training to know it all, but don’t expect someone who went through it 35 years ago to know what it’s like now either! You will likely hear more interesting true stories from these folks than the one you’re working on.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great advice, Todd – thanks a lot for posting!

  6. Jennie Roberts says:

    Fab, really needed this article as I write my detective mystery. Thank you!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Paul!

    2. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jennie – good luck with it!

  7. William Whiteford says:

    Researching does not only limit the imagination. When I am reading some technical description, I usually realize new possibilities for my characters or how to shape a whole scene. But this is obvious. The more important is the process when a technical detail becomes a starting point for the imagination.
    THANKS for YOUR ADVICE.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good point, William. Getting involved in the technicalities, in this case, will only help make a script more believable, rather than limit the imagination.

  8. Khomotso says:

    How to write a party scene? Please help, I’m stuck.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We’d need a few more details… what kind of party? The best thing you could do would be to watch and break down your favorite party scenes from movies/TV shows. And read them in the scripts as well.

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