Tag Archives: Burn Notice

Should the advice the narrator gives on burn notice be taken seriously?

The advice given on Burn Notice by the narrator is helpful as a starting primer. One of the great things about Burn Notice is that you can watch it and then go back to other spy fiction where they use similar techniques but don’t explain what they’re doing to get a better grasp of what’s going on.

It also walks the viewer through a lot of social engineering and various manipulation techniques.

You can take the advice for what it is. It’s better and more comprehensive that what you’ll get on most similar shows, but you should check it against other sources.

It is television, it’s primary goal is to create an enjoyable experience. It won’t be 100% accurate, but it is a great way to start getting your brain thinking in the right direction. If he’s to be believed, the series creator Matt Nix was/is friendly with an agent who worked in intelligence before becoming an consulting producer on the show proper. His name is Michael Wilson. (source via Hollywood Reporter.) Most of the show’s spy advice comes directly from him.

The effects on the show are all practical i.e. real rather than CGI based and, for fun mostly, their tech guy built and tested all the devices the show uses to see if the solutions would actually work. Like most of Hollywood, they leave out some key ingredients needed to make functional bombs.

A lot of effort, especially in the early seasons, went into making the entire show plausible. Basically, Burn Notice is to spies what old school Law & Order is to cops. Is it close? Eh, it’s close enough.

-Michi

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What’s the difference in character between narrator Michael vs actual Michael (from Burn Notice)?

Well, the short answer is The Narrator isn’t Michael. Burn Notice used a third person omniscient narrator voiced by Jeffery Donovan (who also played Michael).

The basic reason to assume they’re not the same character is because The Narrator leads into things that the character does not know, far too frequently. And occasionally outright contradicts things Michael says.

Additionally, the narrator doesn’t leave when Michael isn’t present. This may seem like an odd thing to point out; but, let’s talk about what a narrator is for a moment.

Fundamentally, the narrator is the one telling you the story. This can be a character in the story, or it can simply be an impartial observer, relating information back. They can be honest, or not. They can inject their own editorializing, or not. They can be omniscient, meaning they know everything that is happening, and are privy to what characters are thinking, or not.

Even when your narrative is supposed to be impartial, you still have a non-personified narrator. And they need an internally consistent tone relaying the information back to the reader. As a writer, you get to make a lot of choices about how your narrator, functions, so let’s talk about some of those and how they work.

First and third person narrators are one of the most obvious cues as to who your narrator is. At a very basic level this is determined based on which set of pronouns your narrator uses.

First person suggests a narrator who is an active participant in the story. Often this is the protagonist, though that’s not, strictly, mandatory. Watson, for example, is the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, even though Holmes is the protagonist. Another example would be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where Nick Carraway is telling the audience the story of Jay Gatsby via his own personal experiences. An example of the narrator being the protagonist is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield tells the audience his story. From Twilight to The Hunger Games many novels for the Young Adult sub-genre follow this format.

Third person puts more distance between the protagonist and the reader. It’s a barrier you can use when you want the reader to empathize with a character, but don’t want to endorse their behavior. Or when you want to create a layer of detachment between your characters and the audience.

Omniscient narrators are all-knowing. They have access to, and share information without being tied to any individual character. When this is first person, you usually end up with a narrator that’s editorializing or commenting on the events portrayed.

They can still be a character in the story. This is most common with narrators who are reflecting events in hindsight. In a memoir, for example.

Which is one legitimate read of Burn Notice; An omniscient narrator, who might be a future version of Michael Weston, recounting events that happened in the past, with access to information he didn’t have at the time.

Limited narrators are a character in the story. Strictly speaking their information is restricted to what one of the characters knows. It is possible to jump between different characters to create a larger mosaic of information for the reader. George R. R. Martin has a serious fondness for this specific approach, if you’re wanting an example.

Objective narrators are dispassionate about their characters. That is to say, they don’t care how the characters feel. They’re primarily concerned about what is happening.

Subjective narrators are more interested in what a character is experiencing. What they’re feeling and thinking.

To some extent, objective and subjective narrators are a sliding scale of what you’re priorities are. If you’re more interested in what your character is going through, you skew more towards subjective. If you’re more interested in a procedural, “just the facts ma’am,” Jack Webb approach, then you’re looking at objective.

With an objective narrator, you’re under no obligation to make them a part of the piece. They can literally simply function as an exposition dispenser, filling the audience in on relevant background context. It’s an aesthetic choice, but there’s no “in universe” justification. The narrator is there to make sure the audience understands the context of the situation. Tom Clancy, back when he was still alive and not just a brand perpetuated via editorial necromancy, was excessively fond of this approach.

For the most part, this is what Burn Notice does. The Narrator exists to explain tradecraft to the audience. It’s not a part of the story. Ultimately, there is no metafiction context, of a future Michael teaching a class on espionage. It’s just there to ensure that the show is watchable, and understandable. And when you stick Burn Notice next to something like The Sandbaggers, the reasoning becomes clear. Intelligence is a very obtuse business. People act in counter intuitive ways because it is about subverting expectations, and being a step ahead of what someone’s natural reactions would be.

When you’re writing, you pick your narrative tone, to control how your story feels, and how “close” they are to the characters. First person, subjective, will stick you inside a character’s head. However, it is you placing all your eggs on your narrator being interesting enough to carry the entire narrative on their shoulders. Third Person Limited is the middle ground between the two, and may give you opportunity to open up to other characters as narrators to provide alternate viewpoints on events. Third Person Objective can be downright clinical. Picking the right one is an important part of choosing the story you want to tell.

-Starke

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Re: your post on spies: You should probably note that you are talking specifically about covert HUMINT operatives. There are a lot of other types of spies out there, most of whom don’t fit your profile.

If I seem overly harsh here, I apologize. My doctor just cut a piece of my foot off, and it hurts like you wouldn’t believe.

We used a very strict definition of spy, for a couple simple reasons: one, we’re a writing blog, so this is intended for people who are, well, writing Spies, and second, because anyone can fit the definition of a spy, depending on who’s making the accusation.

A spy is an opportunistic title. When you’re looking at literature, and media in general, a spy is going to be either a HUMINT operator or a James Bond super-ninja. Thing is HUMINT are an extreme minority of the intelligence community.

Intelligence gathering gets split under two large banners, SIGINT and HUMINT.

HUMINT is short for Human Intelligence, if you’re thinking of writing a spy, then you’re probably thinking of a HUMINT operator. These are the characters that Michi detailed in the psychological outlook. It’s the kind of spy that John Le Carre actually was. In broad strokes, it’s where 95% of the espionage genre exists, or where it tries to exist.

HUMINT can refer to deep cover agents, but more often, it refers to officers that recruit and use others to do their spying for them. This is part of why they end up with the incredibly cold outlook they do. Burn Notice’s Michael Westen and Le Carre’s George Smiley are both examples of HUMINT Officers.

SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. This includes anyone that gathers intelligence through electronic means without involving real people. These are surveillance techs, radio operators, sat techs, computer programers, IT guys. Anyone who sits in an office, and collects intelligence via the internet, sat feeds, or wire taps. This is the kind of spy that Ian Flemming was in real life, and you can start to see why James Bond split off from reality so egregiously.

There are circumstances where you’ll need to stick a SIGINT officer in the field, but, even then, defining them as a spy would be a bit tenuous.

After this you have Analysts, who take the data that’s been collected and use it to generate a coherent picture, and figure out what the intelligence means. Jack Ryan in the early Tom Clancy novels is one of these. Analysts are people who have to have a fairly deep understanding of their field, and they’ll look more like academics than spies.

There’s also a lot of support personnel, military intelligence and special forces, who all have intelligence roles.

As I mentioned earlier, the problem with the term “spy” is it can apply to anyone.

Is Edward Snowden a spy or a whistle blower? Uncomfortable as it is, the difference is just who’s making the accusation.

There’s also a long tradition of charging foreign visitors as spies because “reasons.”

There were the programers from Bohemia Interactive who were arrested in Greece for being spies. Their crime was they had cameras and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Iraq and Iran had a long history of arresting any foreign national they found near their shared border and labeling them a spy. Sometimes even crossing over the border and hauling them back. This included fishermen, farmers, and of course a trio of American hikers.

North Korea has also been known to cross the Chinese border in search of “spies” that never set foot in North Korea.

And, of course, Iran is now going to execute an American programmer because of some tenuous connections between his employer and the DoD.

Welcome to the wonderful world of espionage, one execution at a time. If you’re setting out to actually write a spy, it’s probably going to be a HUMINT Officer.

What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)

-Starke

I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)

-Starke

One of the hardest things to do in a fight is to make it look like you’re trying to kill someone without doing permanent damage. They don’t teach any half-moves in combat training. There are moves designed to kill and maim as efficiently as possible. If those are off-limits, one option is opening your fist right before a punch lands. Painful, but the force is distributed. Another showy option is a kick to the shoulder. It might break a rib or two but if you aim right, nobody’s going to the morgue.

Michael Westen, Burn Notice 204: “Comrades”