Plotting Drug Scenes: Lethal Writing Traps to Avoid

So…you want to kill off a character and write a scene where he grabs his neck and dies instantly after a sip from drug-laced drink!

Not so fast.

If you write that scene, you risk losing credibility with your readers. Some drugs are rapidly lethal in small quantities, but none are instantaneous killers. Even the most lethal require a few moments of symptom evolution for your character to experience, before the grand plot point.

So, how can you possibly write that scene and not lose readers when you don’t have a medical background? It isn’t that hard, given a little bit of research and planning. A few things to consider before writing the scene include:

  • Historical accuracy: 
    • Was the drug in your plot even discovered by the historical period of your story? For example, a scene set in the 1800’s with a diabetic injecting insulin is going to be a tough sell, since the drug wasn’t even discovered, let alone used in medicine, until the 1900’s.
  • How is the drug given?
    • Don’t write a scene where the spy slaps a character with a patch of a specific drug on his should, only to find out the drug can only work given intravenously. There are drugs that absorb through the skin, but not all do. And they can take a large amount of time to absorb to the point that your character is in peril. Sometimes, an inhaled drug may be the most dramatic way to develop a scene. The days of chloroform knock-outs have been supplanted by newer, more nefarious drugs. 
  • What are typical symptoms from that drug?
    • Your character should display some of the symptoms, but be careful to not have every listed symptom show all at once. In real life, certain symptoms show first, and others may follow. (This is good for writers, because painting an evolving scene is much more dramatic!) Please watch out for scenes that sound like a medical check list of symptoms. Find out which symptoms are not only likely to show first, but be the most dramatic for your scene, and consider how to blend those to your advantage.

These considerations should be researched to smooth out your initial plot idea. Does everything have to be perfectly timed? Of course not. But scenes should be realistic. The last thing you need is for a reader with any medical background (or savvy young readers) to trash your credibility in a bad review. 

Plenty of resources are available. Locally, consider tapping into medical professionals. Maybe your local writing chapter has members with medial backgrounds. I am often consulted by other writers to discuss realistic plots for drug related scenes. Facebook writers’ groups often have at least some medical related members (nurses, doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, respiratory therapists) that might offer input and feedback. For research online, a wealth of knowledge can be found on the national poison center and FDA websites, just to name a few. YouTube is rich with videos of people sharing drug experiences (the good and the bad) with audiences, giving you an unclose picture (sometimes more than you really wanted).

Hopefully, this has given you a few tips to help with plotting your drug-related scenes more effectively. Do you have any tips?

Happy writing!

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