Novel Malpractice

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, tips, writing 5 Comments

by Dr. Ronda Wells @RondaWellsBooks

Have you ever read a novel or watched a show or movie and said, “Wait a minute! That’s not right. In real life, we would do this . . . .” You only need to be a hobbyist, or have real life experience, or be a professional to encounter this.

Mistakes happen—a lot.

As a physician and fiction writer, I see repeated medical errors in novels, films, and television shows. Some flaws are necessary to fit the story in a one-hour show. Most of us know a heart transplant takes longer than the five minutes it does on T.V. We suspend disbelief and keep watching to see if our heroine survives.

In a novel though, outright mistakes can stop a reader, including agents and editors, or pull them out of the story. Some recent NYT bestsellers contain a major medical faux pas or two. Part of the problem is the author based an assumption on something he or she read in a book or saw in a film which was wrong to begin with.

Dr. Ronda Wells discusses the importance of writing with medical accuracy @RondaWellsBooks #writing #ACFW #ChristianFiction Click To Tweet

I understand the dilemmas with medical scenarios because I’ve helped multiple inspirational authors with medical issues in their books. I began to see some common threads and called this “Novel Malpractice.”

*Amnesia: The most frequent error involves amnesia. It’s easy to give a character a sudden blank past in order to move them into a different world or realm, while reserving the character’s past to come roaring back at the black moment. The hero or heroine has a head injury, gets amnesia (one movie did get the type right—retrograde amnesia), and is blocked from recalling important information.

But then the heroine suffers another head injury, and remarkably all her memory returns in a flash. This doesn’t happen, even if you’ve seen it used. A second head injury doesn’t fix amnesia from a prior head injury. If anything, it might add to it or make it worse.

*Research First: One piece of writing advice is to get that story down, and if you don’t know something, just “research it later.” Good advice, but if you’re using a medical scenario or character though, I caution the opposite. Research the medical stuff first.

Many authors write their story into a corner with a tough-to-fix erroneous timeline, especially if the character needs to land in a hospital for any length of time. You may avoid rewriting several chapters if you understand ahead of time how the injury, disease, or treatment normally proceeds.

*Watch your terminology: Another common goof is with terms that refer to doctors, such as intern, resident, staff doctor, and fellow. Some writers don’t understand how doctors are trained. Or they confuse labels that seem similar such as optometrist, ophthalmologist, and optician.
You should have a basic understanding of what your doctor or medical character knows or is capable of at what stage of their training. Don’t show a fully-trained general surgeon who has completed a five-year residency and is headed to a vascular surgery fellowship practicing sutures on a banana. It’s cute, but this person knows how to suture! They wouldn’t be headed to a prestigious fellowship if they didn’t.

As Christians, we are called to a higher standard, so let’s live up to that and amaze our readers.

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” ~Colossians 3:17

Physician and award-winning author Dr. Ronda Wells writes “Heartfelt Stories from the Heartland” and publishes online devotionals for Arise Daily. Her Killer Nashville Magazine column, Novel Malpractice, and blog by the same name, offer medical information and resources for authors. A wife, mom, and grandma who puts faith and family first, she is an original member of ACFW and Indiana ACFW. She speaks to writer’s groups on Novel Malpractice, and is developing a new talk/blog on Historical Novel Malpractice. Get in touch with her via X, Instagram, and FB @RondaWellsBooks, or at or

*To help you out, a free handout “Which Doctors do What” is available on my website at You can also take a quiz to see if you’ve committed “Novel Malpractice” at

Comments 5

  1. I read a book earlier this year with a medical inaccuracy in it. The big thing I remember about the book is not the great characters or the wonderful setting. It’s the medical error!

  2. Rhonda – Thank you! Your information about amnesia is fascinating because I’ve read/seen plots which you described and the portrayal of amnesia was inaccurate. I’m thankful to have met you at a recent IN ACFW gathering, and thank you for the follow up help you’ve given me. Again – THANK YOU for sharing your expertise! I hope you post more blogs here.

  3. I once called a respiratory therapist a respiratory nurse…even though I knew better. Have no idea why I did that other than a nurse read the story, pointed out my error (which I at first didn’t believe) and I got her to read my wip that involved a doctor. 🙂

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