By Miffie Seideman
Ever ended a rough week by killing off one of your characters? Yeah, me too. No matter what people say, it can be cathartic. Even therapeutic. But, for authors with little to no drug knowledge, plot twists involving an overdose (accidental or otherwise) can seem complicated. To maintain credibility with readers, authors should make sure to get at least a few crucial drug-related facts right.
Written well, an overdose scene is a page-turner. But if your character instantly drops dead from an insulin overdose, the thud you hear won’t be from the body dropping to the ground.
It will be from readers closing your book in utter disappointed.
It’s fiction. Why not just make up facts?
I hear this argument quite often. As authors, we spend an inordinate amount of time researching historical data, geographic facts, magical lore, and so much more, to craft well-developed stories. Drug scenes should be no different.
Our readers may be one of the millions of healthcare workers, from paramedics to doctors. Some may be diabetics or cancer survivors. Some may be struggling with alcohol or opioid addiction. Today’s readers are savvier than ever before about drugs.
Writing blatantly inaccurate drug scenes can ruin a story for these readers, risking negative reviews. For example, the recent movie Knives Out relies on a flawed drug-related plot twist that ruins an otherwise fun, well-plotted (and mostly well-acted) story. Numerous online reviews were quick with grievances.
How to write drug-related scenes well (without medical knowledge)
Before writing these scenes, whether they involve smoking pot at a frat party or spies using lethal injections, I recommend researching the following key points:
Verify that the drug, and the way you depict it being given, existed in the historical time period of the story. For example, an early 1800’s historical fiction with an insulin-using diabetic character would be grossly inaccurate. Neither insulin nor injections were discovered until the 1900’s.
The socioeconomic circumstances of your characters will impact the drugs used and abused. A character living on the street might smoke crack cocaine, while a high-society hostess may serve an Ecstasy-laced cheese platter.
In addition, many drug use trends, and their prescribing habits, change over time. It was no accident that Agatha Christie’s pivotal scene in Murder on the Orient Express revolved around barbital, a popular sedative during the story’s time period.
Accurate Side effects
Consider these two important questions:
- What are typical side effects for the drug? A character should have a few realistic side effects. Hallucinations of paint dripping down walls are obviously more likely with an LSD trip, while a heart attack might end an energy drink chugging contest.
- How long do the effects take to develop? While instant effects are tempting, almost no drug works instantly. But this is actually wonderful for dramatic writing! For murder and overdose scenes, this fact gives authors a built-in real timeline to evolve the danger, creating a page-turner.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve gathered some basic clear facts, you can create a believable three-dimensional scene the reader won’t soon forget.
That insulin scene? It’s now set in the 1990’s. A woman measures insulin from a vial into a syringe, and gives herself a dose. The anticipation grows, as the reader watches helplessly, knowing the woman’s husband secretly switched the insulin concentration. As the woman sits back to watch an evening movie, the danger slowly evolves. She starts to feel dizzy, examines the insulin bottle, confused. The dose seemed right. Slowly, she realizes what has happened, knows she needs to find help. But she can’t think clearly. She tries to get up, stumbles, falls, her breathing strained. Does help arrive in time? The reader has no choice but to turn the page to find out.
Note: Miffie has agreed to share her pharmaceutical know-how with us as an ongoing feature! If you have questions and scenarios you'd like her to explore for future posts, please share them in the comments.
Feel like you're killing your readers with unrealistic drug scenes? I’d love to hear your comments and questions!
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Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. She’s a published non-fiction author, with another peer-reviewed journal article coming out this month. An avid triathlete, she spends countless hours training in the deserts of Arizona, devising drug-related plot twists. She can be found hanging around onwemerrilystumble.com and on Twitter @MiffieSeideman.