Aug 25, 2010

On Unconsciousness (and falling into it)

I don't know about you, but in my current story (and in my next one as well, I imagine) I have several of my perspective characters [n. characters from whose perspective you write] being knocked unconscious. This happens rather often, but ways of expressing him can become extremely cliche. Sure, in the context of the story it's dramatic, suspenseful, and perhaps induces a bit of pity/sympathy, but how many times do you think you can use "everything went black" before your readers start to notice something?

Some authors I know of stretch the experience of being knocked unconscious into so many very looong sentences that I wonder if the character is ever going to actually black out. Tolkien, for instance, with Pippin in Return of the King. It takes him two whole paragraphs until "his eyes saw no more". While I don't necessarily have a problem with this and it fits with Tolkien's style, if I ever tried it the attempt would sound very, very cheesy.

Other authors will use a process of a few sentences, with the character seeing snatches of the world outside, possibly trying to claw their way toward it or willfully sinking, depending on the situation -- whether the character is fed up with his current position or wants to stay around to see what happens or possibly save himself from getting skewered, for example.

Most authors try to express it in two or three words, i. e. "everything faded" or "darkness closed in" or "blackness descended". While these are simple and effective, they are also used far too often.

Let's take a look at the last two, shall we?

I really think the "process" technique is good for certain situations when you want to prolong the experience and add more detail. If your character has been recently injured and you want to add some throbbing or whatever, now is the time to do so. If he thinks he's dying you can put in something about savoring life for a last, lingering moment. Try panic, fury, regret or cold acceptance for emotional detail.

On the other hand, the "phrase" examples are much more common and (as I have stated before -- maybe I'm trying to make a point? ;) ) profusely overused. While the "process" technique offers a good place for detail, I tend to think that the shorter version is a place for action. Unfortunately many authors who use this technique fail to employ strong verbs. Strong verbs are a must for any action sequence and especially one of this sort because it carries so much impact. If you want to use this "phrase" technique and you insist on following the template, go find a good, old thesaurus (no, really) and look up alternatives to the words already in use. Some starter words for a word like "fell" -- as in "fell into darkness" -- are plummeted, plunged, or sank. You could also try playing with engulfed or swallowed -- just don't use the same phrase over and over again. Variety really is the spice of life -- and good writing.

I tend to use the "phrase" technique for emphasis, with things like " slumped into unconsciousness" and "blackness claimed him" and, most recently, "plummeted into the waiting abyss". I've also read some interesting plays on the common template, things about black sparkles and fighting darkness (and losing). What kind of things have you come up with?

Also, if any of you ever decide to do stupid stuff like banging your head into a brass doornknocker (ahem, Sir Emeth) and faint as a result, try to remember what it feels like for someone who has never actually been unconscious, okay? ;)


Meaghan Ward said...

I agree with you that it can soon become cliche. I have the same problem and am constantly testing word combinations.

Here's what I wrote recently when my character was in a car crash. (She's still not very happy about that. Perhaps that why she hasn't been cooperative with me lately.)

"Her head lolled to the side, pain jolting her senses, as blurry gray light faded to black."

Sir Emeth Mimetes said...

Ahem. I did not 'lapse into the void' by that little mishap. I have never 'visited the land of sleeping livers,' as a matter of fact, despite my mother's frantic and often terrified warnings that I would do so if I continued in my chaotic courses. :D

So no help there. Sorry. :P

Another effect that I have seen well done (and poorly done) is to skip the event of the person 'going blank' entirely (sort of like what the person himself experiences). Like he is hit... and then he wakes up skidding across the floor.

From what I understand (from reading about real life events) only certain kinds of things will make you actually go 'black.' That doesn't happen all the time. In fact the blackness is a separate event from the unconsciousness, and you experience it before you lose consciousness.

Several times a person has no idea that he lost consciousness at all, and there is merely a seamless gap in his memory.

Other times a person experiences the blackness and doesn't 'blink out' at all. I have experienced this myself several times....

Anyways some of my thoughts on the science itself. I agree with you entirely on the style aspect. :)