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  • Writer's pictureRobert Sadler

crossing the line

Writing About Crossing The Line, For Fiction Writers

In the realm of the security consultant having clients understand the reasons for risk mitigation is paramount to their initiating mitigation. I wrote the essay below as a frame of reference for discussions of their individual issues with a variety of crimes and potential crimes. In specific below I deal with ‘theft’ and ‘murder’.  (I ask your forbearance of the images’ low resolution.)

Life—as in the world of fiction writing—is a place where people do unto others as they often shouldn’t. Those acts may be dishonorable, disagreeable, or despicable. When those acts cross the legal line they become criminal—here are some tool-thoughts for your toolbox from the real world (should you not be aware of them) that may be of benefit to your writing-into-the-unknown.

Desire, Intent, and Opportunity are specifically different than the three elements: means, motive, and opportunity often referred to by TV cops and prosecutors as necessary to prove guilt or obtain a conviction. Their Means often refers to the object used to commit the crime, like a knife used to stab the victim or the money to hire the hit-man and Opportunity is often the physical presence of the villain and victim in the same space and time. It would seem rather clear that ‘means’ is an inseparable part of ‘opportunity’; if one does not have the ‘means’, one does not have the opportunity, regardless of the physical presence of actor and victim and vice-versa. Likewise Motive in the TV sense is that which motivated the villain to act, such as greed or jealousy. Motive is a little more specific as to process; it is an inward prompting or impulse, an internal argument capable of producing conviction which can be directed, for example, by greed or jealousy.

While Motive contains both Intent and Desire, they are separable. By that I intend that both are constituent parts of Motive or motivation. Intent to commit an act without the Desire to do so will not foster the doing and the Desire to commit and act without the Intent to do so is merely wishful thinking. Therefore Desire and Intent are dynamically different and when combined with Opportunity, the Decision to Act can be made.

In the example of the three-legged stool, Opportunity is quiet simply the chance to do the deed. Therefore Opportunity (that actual window in time, access or nearness to commit a crime) can create a temptation that fuels the Desire which kindles the Intent that sparks the action to commit a crime; theft for instance. Desire can be fomented by need, alienation, or resentment which can ignite the Intent to be vigilant for the Opportunity. Intent to steal can heighten Desire to act on the Opportunity.

Regardless of these permutations, take one of the legs away and this stool cannot stand. Similarly, just as the three elements of oxygen, fuel, and a spark or ignition source must be present for a fire to occur; the three elements that must be present for a crime to occur are: desire, intent, and opportunity. If you remove one component necessary for an event of fire or crime, the event is unlikely to occur.

However, unlike fire, crime has a fourth component. The seat of this three legged stool is the Decision to Act —in the presence of Desire, Intent and Opportunity—the doing. For most offenses, a crime is committed with the decision to act and the forces that create this action are both mental and physical. Some would argue that the decision to act is not ‘the act’ but a step toward action. I would disagree and offer this old example of ‘trying’ to do something. Hold a pen in your hand and ‘try’ to drop it on your desk; you can not. You can not try, you can only do; i.e. to intend or to have intent to do, as opposed to doing. If you ‘decide’ to drop the pen; you drop it; the decision to drop the pin is the instant when the action begins; i.e. the pen is released and falls to the desk. Without the decision to act, the pen remains in your hand.

Physically the theft of property, for example, requires a physical object to be taken without permission. If the object does not exist or is no longer present, no act of theft can occur which is the ultimate denial of opportunity. If the object exists, but the opportunity does not exist or is thwarted; as in there is no time, a barrier stands between the object and the villain, then the act of theft cannot occur. On the mental side, if the potential villain has no desire, aspiration, need or craving for the object; it is likely no theft will occur, even in the face of opportunity. Additionally, the act of theft does not occur by accident; it is intentional. The villain will focus on, aim, target, or have as his/her goal, the object. There will be clear intent to take the object; intent to act.

Therefore to prevent theft, efforts can be devised to minimize or remove the various elements of Desire, Intent, and Opportunity.

It should be observed that the act of theft is a fluid dynamic and that stopping acts of theft are pretty straight forward. A good risk assessment will determine what can or could be stolen and mitigate it with personnel screening, physical security measures and sound polices, procedures, and employee relations. However this trinity of mitigation is only as effective as leadership and management demands it to be; utilizing thorough planning, due diligence and follow-through.

Mentally, although individuals of good character can be screened for and are the most desirable employees, even those of good character can be induced, or seduced to commit crimes of opportunity. Therefore the first element of a risk assessment is to determine: a) where the physical opportunities for theft are, b) what factors create mental opportunities and c) determine ways to mitigate a) and b).

A physical opportunity might be that a laptop may be left unsecured; there is no physical barrier to taking it; simplistically, locks or secure storage may solve that issue. There may be a lack of equipment accountability creating a diminished mental barrier to taking the laptop; institute policies and procedures that a) makes individuals accountable for the equipment and b) requires management have constant knowledge of its whereabouts and security.

Non-existent, bad or ineffective policies; bad or ineffective management or the perception of these, by an employee, can create the mental desire necessary to act. The employee may develop the feeling of being ‘owed’ by the company for some real or perceived injustice and take some ‘remunerative’ action.

In Summary:

(focusing on internal-theft)

First, where a company fails to mitigate opportunity, intent, and desire employees may decide to act and internal thefts will occur. Second, it should be understood how interrelated the process of crime mitigation is: the best way to mitigate Intent is decreasing or eliminating Opportunity, usually with physical security and attendant polices and procedures; the best way to mitigate Desire is to promote employee health: feelings of worth to boss, co-workers and company; and the best way to mitigate Opportunity is to remove employee desire and or intent. Third, if you remove one of the components necessary for an event of crime, the event is unlikely to occur.

The word ‘unlikely’ is used since, like a fire-event occurring due to spontaneous combustion (when not all three elements of a fire seem to be present), a crime-event can occur seemingly spontaneously when all three elements were deemed not to be present. In a split second where desire and intent were already present, the momentary lapse in blocked opportunity, such as a power failure knocking out a security system, can create a small window of opportunity that can be immediately acted upon.

Vigilance is the key and the proactive company, rather than attempting to mitigate one single component, will attempt to remove multiple components of the crime-event; creating an even greater prospect of eliminating chance occurrences.

This only leaves the Decision to Act the three-legged stool’s seat, the most perplexing yet the easiest component to control. We do not understand why out of two individuals both having Desire, Intent, and Opportunity one decides to act, the other does not. What we do know is that without the legs: Desire, Intent, and Opportunity there is no need for a seat. Literally in order for a crime-event to occur someone has to build the stool, one leg at a time, attach the seat! and then decide to sit. So: Be Vigilant – Don’t Give Crime a Leg to Stand On. Remember: Take one leg away and crime doesn’t stand a chance!

Addendum Summary:

(focusing on homicide) A relevant question, considering this model, how would it apply to the crime of murder; homicide?

The inherent immediacy of homicide renders the mitigation of Desire, Intent and Opportunity problematic, if not impossible. How do you stop premeditated killing, much less spontaneous killing?

Only the attempt to commit murder falls within the potential of mitigation by disrupting the triumvirate of Desire, Intent and Opportunity from culminating in the Decision to Act. Preventing the act of murder largely is a function of intelligence and risk management. Intelligence being the foreknowledge of: the target/intended victim, the actor/perpetrator, and or the location of the intended homicide. Should such intelligence be known then various techniques of risk management can be employed to disrupt the murder plot, and its premeditated act.

Sans intelligence of a premeditated act, mitigation lies in the realm of Risk Management. If a person is a target/intended victim by virtue of the some inherent nature of their occupation, for example, it behooves those responsible for keeping such person safe to find ways to stop, remove, or lessen any unknown actor’s Desire, Intent and Opportunity to kill their protectee. The means and methods of personal risk managers are best left undiscussed here.

In the immediacy of the moment before the Decision to Act is initiated, there had to have existed Desire, Intent and Opportunity. Homicide is the holistic result of the decision to act as a product of murderer’s Desire, Intent and Opportunity. However there can be no mitigation of something that has already occurred. In that sense homicide is not a preventable crime. However, once committed (and the search for the murderer begins) the constituent elements of Desire, Intent and Opportunity, when discovered, can illuminate the murder’s Decision to Act. Though with a homicide case, the issue of Opportunity is often self-evident, Opportunity alone may fail to narrow the suspect pool.

It then falls to the investigator/detective to discover the murderer’s Desire and or Intent as predicated for the Decision to Act. Fortunate indeed is the homicide investigator/detective who posses some forensic evidence that irrefutably identifies the murderer making the necessity to discover his or her Desire, Intent and Opportunity that led to their Decision to Act potentially irrelevant to an arrest. However these elements are likely to be highly significant to an effective prosecution.


Whether you agree or disagree with my terminology, analysis, and or conclusions, it is my hope that this information might be useful for your mental toolbox. That it might then inform your subconscious when WITD/WITU.


Happy writing-in-the-dark, the-unknown… or wherever the blindfolded Muse of fiction leads you.


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“There is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’… only writers not writing.” rjs

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