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Ten Popular Misconceptions About Injuries in Fiction

A Guest Post by M.J. Carlson

You’ve all experienced it—reading a thriller or watching a movie or TV show when a character is injured, sometimes severely, until the next scene, when they’re all back to normal and on with the chase.

In all fairness, the author may have never experienced that particular injury. Information about symptoms of injuries can be hard to find and difficult for the average person to interpret. So, to compensate, writers often talk to other writers about injury symptoms, paraphrase descriptions from other texts, or “just write whatever the plot needs to happen.”

To make matters worse, Hollywood has perpetuated a “hero as superhero” myth. Accordingly, Americans have come to expect their heroes to be bigger than life.

So, let’s take a realistic look at the ten most used (and misused) injuries in fiction.

Probably the most used, and misused, injury in fiction is head trauma. It seems every time a character needs to be silenced, subdued, or moved, or if one character needs to gain entrance past guards or escape captors, someone gets whacked on the head, rendering them unconscious for exactly the necessary time. The injured characters almost universally awaken with minimal symptoms, usually treated by simply wrapping gauze around their heads.

If you’re writing a story involving real humans, though, some things to keep in mind are: any head injury resulting in loss of consciousness for more than a few seconds will probably result in:
– sharp, stinging pain at the point of contact (usually the scalp or face) with bruising
– headache
– dizziness
– nausea/vomiting
– confusion
– blurred vision
– ringing in the ears
– decreased coordination
– light/noise sensitivity

Concussion with loss of consciousness <5 minutes may take days to weeks for complete recovery.

A moderate or severe head injury of loss of consciousness >5 minutes may also result in excruciating headache, repeated vomiting or nausea, seizures, an inability to awaken from sleep, dilation of one or both pupils of the eyes, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in the extremities, loss of coordination, and confusion, restlessness, or agitation and may take months to fully recover from.

Blunt trauma (probably fiction’s second most common injury) includes almost all transportation injuries, like motor vehicle collisions, pedestrians struck by vehicles, airplane crashes, and boating incidents, as well as jumping or falling from heights, blast injuries, and being struck by a firm object, such as a fist, crowbar, bat, or ball. In medical terminology, blunt trauma, blunt injury, non-penetrating trauma, and blunt force trauma are usually synonymous. In legal terminology, blunt force trauma implies intent. Blunt trauma can often lead to other types of injuries, including abrasions (road rash), contusions (bruises), lacerations, fractures, concussions, burns, and internal organ injuries.

Strangulation involves lack of blood flow or oxygen to the brain. The three types of strangulation are: hanging (suspension from a stationary object by a cord wound around the neck), ligature strangulation (strangulation without suspension using some form of cord called a garrote—usually from behind), and manual strangulation (throttling—strangulation using the fingers, legs, or crook of the elbow, AKA the “sleeper hold” popular on TV and in police departments).

Your character will probably experience panic (they will panic), rapid heart beat, tunnel vision, weakness, euphoria, hallucinations, slowed heart rate, and unconsciousness, all in fifteen seconds to a minute. On awakening, they may have a sore throat, headache, dizziness, or nausea and vomiting lasting minutes to hours.

A laceration is a tearing of the skin, not a clean cut (incision). The amount of pain involved is roughly proportional to wound size and edge irregularity. Skin wounds hurt because nerve endings are exposed to air, changing the pH. Depending on the severity, typical recovery time with stitches is 2-4 weeks, or months without stitches.

A puncture wound (penetrating trauma) is any wound deeper than it is wide. A puncture wound can be Low energy (spears, knives), Medium energy (arrows, crossbow bolts, handguns, shotguns) wounds result in a sharp, “jolting pain” and typically need 1-3 months recovery time, or High energy (high-powered rifles). These injuries usually require 3-6 months recovery time, often with permanent residuals.
– Arrow or crossbow bolt – often a sharp, ‘searing,’ ‘jolting’, or ‘stinging’ pain
– Bullet—small caliber wounds are often described as “a mild to moderate stinging” sensation, may not be immediately noticed by the victim unless a bone is broken or a lung is punctured. This is more common on battlefields, where adrenaline is high. Oh, Hollywood? There’s no safe place to shoot a human being. Any puncture wound, even a shoulder or leg injury, can result in massive blood loss and death within a few minutes.

Blood loss & shock: After more than about 1 liter of blood loss your character will start to experience:
– Confusion
– Rapid heart rate
– Rapid, shallow breathing
– Weakness and chills, starting in the extremities, moving toward the heart
Typical recovery time with intravenous volume replacement is 1-2 days, and without is 2-4 weeks, Hemoglobin replacement without transfusion for 1 liter is approximately 3-6 months.

Sprains and fractures are extremely common injuries in fiction. A sprain is stretching a joint’s tendon past its limit and a fracture is any disruption of a bone’s structure. The pain from either can be immediately incapacitating, sometimes resulting in shock and loss of consciousness. Typical recovery time for sprains and simple fractures is 4-6 weeks.

Sprains can be Grade 1 (a stretched tendon with no tearing), Grade 2 (some tearing of the tendon), or Grade 3 (complete tearing, resulting in an unstable/unusable joint).

A simple fractures is a broken bone, while a compound fracture involves a bone fragment poking out through the skin. As you can imagine, this is usually an incapacitating injury.

– Sharp, sudden, nauseating pain with a sickening “snap” or “crack” as the bone breaks
– Deep, aching or burning pain in the area of the injury
– Probable inability to move the extremity
– Possible numbness if nerves are involved
– Lightheaded or dizzy from shock (the character may pass out)

Burns can be radiation, thermal, chemical, or electrical. Burns are categorized according to the depth. A first degree burn is a superficial, painful burn, often resulting in reddening of the skin and little or no lasting damage. A second degree burn results in partial thickness damage to the skin in the form of blisters or killing skin cells at the top of the dermal layer (a dry, white look to the skin).

A third degree burn is painless, because the skin and nerve endings are dead. However, the surrounding skin is very painful because it’s at the second degree stage. These injuries always result in scarring, and usually contractures (inability to move the extremity in certain directions). Third degree burns usually require hospitalization and greater than 60% are often fatal. Rehabilitation from third degree burns is slow and painful, and usually involves rehabilitation hospitals, physical therapy, and removal of dead tissue.

Cold injury is also graded according to damage and depth. First degree is initially cold, then numb, with mild superficial pain on warming. Second degree is usually painless because of the numbing effect of cold. It’s a deeper injury, associated with blisters and peeling skin. Pain starts with warming of the area. Third degree is almost painless, because the skin and the nerve endings are dead. As in burns, third degree cold injury always results in extensive, deep scarring and contractures and probably the loss of fingers/toes, etc. Greater than approximately 10% of the surface area almost always requires hospitalization for dehydration and pain control, and may involve amputations of the affected body parts. Greater than 30% third degree cold injury is usually fatal.

Chilblains is a phenomenon where the extremities are exposed to hours or days of constant wetness and temperatures above freezing. Chilblains sometimes results in nerve/blood vessel damage.

In decompression injury (AKA “leaky spaceship syndrome”), symptoms of air hunger, shortness of breath, confusion, panic, blurred vision, and rapid heart rate start as air pressure drops below 8 lbs/sq in. Exposure to a vacuum does NOT instantly freeze skin. Heat loss through convection actually slows due to lack of a medium to absorb the heat (it’s a vacuum). Exposure to a vacuum doesn’t cause the body to explode. The surface blood vessels will rupture (most noticeably in the whites of the eyes). Gas expansion in the lungs is a problem, though. As blood vessels in the lungs explode, the lungs fill with blood.

Going the other direction, at ocean depths more of than a hundred feet, nitrogen from the air is forced into the blood by higher pressures. When the pressure is reduced back to sea level too rapidly, the stored nitrogen returns to gas and can cause bubbles in the blood, resulting in severe joint pain (gas trapped in joints, AKA the bends), heart attack, or stroke.
In conclusion, Super Hero Syndrome and Hollywood Healing are a fantasy. If you’re writing a superhero character (John McClane, Jack Reacher, etc.), this information probably won’t directly apply to your main character, but the characters they interact with will still be subject to normal human frailties. If used judiciously, this information can serve to enhance your storytelling and more fully engage your readers, thus providing them a richer, more enjoyable experience.

The story you choose to write is entirely within your control, as is your character’s (and ultimately, your reader’s) adventure. This concept is only one of many to consider when providing your reader with a fulfilling vicarious experience. If, by the end of the story, you and your reader are satisfied, you’ve been successful.

M.J. Carlson:

M.J. Carlson is an American science fiction author of numerous novels and short stories. He also maintains an active speaking schedule, giving workshops on writing software, story structure, and accurately writing injures from the character’s point of view. He lives in Melbourne, Florida, with his Wise Reader and Muse, Sparkle, and more computers than any sane person should have. For more information, check out mjcarlson.com or M.J. Carlson, writer at Facebook.

Misconceptions About Transportation

A Guest Post by Sean Golden

Unless you are writing a short story about someone stuck in a prison cell all day, there’s a good chance that your story will have to deal with transportation. Transportation can be the thing that quite literally carries your story’s plot from place to place. If it is important to you for your story to get things right, you probably should be aware of some common misconceptions about different types of transportation.

Let’s start with horses. I’ve read many stories where characters treat horses like automobiles. Horses are ignored until the character needs them, when they appear fully rested, fed and saddled, and then gallop madly from place to place at a pace that would kill an average horse. What many authors seem not to understand is that the typical pace of riding a horse isn’t a gallop. It’s a rhythm that sort of alternates between a walk and a trot. A day’s ride is roughly thirty miles, or roughly the average daily commute of an American office worker. Horses also need to be tended, and they are smart enough to know when they are being mistreated. A person traveling on horseback needs to spend an hour or so each day doing nothing but tending their horse, or they won’t have a horse for long.

Now let’s talk about sailing. First, you don’t set a new course by turning the wheel. A sailing ship is a finely tuned machine that turns wind into motion, and the gears of that machine are the sails and the keel. All the steering wheel does is control the orientation of the keel. To set a new course typically requires a complex re-positioning of the sails to produce thrust in the direction desired, and a re-alignment of the keel to stabilize the ship in the new configuration, or in the case of tacking, to create a thrust vector that travels into the wind. Of course if you’re sailing upwind, you have to repeatedly reverse tack in a zig-zag pattern to go in anything like the direction you desire. Sailing a tall ship is brutal work. Teams of sailors haul huge, heavy, wind-tossed sails, tying and untying ropes to reset the sails every time the wind changes, or any time a new course is chosen. Turning the wheel is the most trivial part of that endeavor.

Second, sails rarely are used to catch the wind directly from behind. Circumstances that allow a sailing ship to “run before the wind” are unusual enough that doing so is considered remarkable good fortune. Sails are actually airfoils that produce thrust more or less the same way that an airplane wing produces lift. That’s why modern racing yachts have wings instead of sails, they are more efficient at producing thrust. The trick to sailing is learning how to position your sails in such a way that the wind blowing across them produces the optimum thrust in the direction you want to go, which is generally not directly at your intended destination. Instead a series of course changes taking advantage of the wind conditions takes your ship to port like a converging geometric series of lines and angles.

In science fiction, perhaps the most common misconception about space travel is the idea that it is very similar to flying an airplane. It’s not. Flying an airplane is as different from piloting a space ship as it is from sailing a ship. There are two major reasons for this.

First, ignoring orbital mechanics and considering movement in “deep space,” every change in position of a ship requires an expenditure of fuel. That means if I’m in a ship traveling in one direction, and I need to turn around and go back the other way, every inch I go off the direct line I am traveling is wasted fuel. And when fuel is your most important commodity, you don’t want to waste it. Any ship navigator that “swoops” their spaceship around in a big looping arc will probably find themselves on latrine duty the next day.

But more important than that, and what virtually every space scene in movies and most sci-fi books get totally wrong, is the reality of orbital mechanics. In space, when dealing with gravity wells, (like in orbit around a planet, for example) you don’t point your ship at your destination and hit the throttle. In fact, doing so is likely to be suicidal. Moving around in a complex and dynamic collection of gravity wells can be compared to sailing a ship. The most efficient way to reach a destination is usually to follow a complex path that requires constant readjustment to exploit any local gravity wells. A space battle in orbit can be viewed as a sort of dance, where the ships follow orbital trajectories that cause them to separate and then come back together over and over again as each ship maneuvers to gain the best advantage against the enemy as they sweep past.

Finally, the biggest misconception about space travel is the sheer immensity of distances involved. The Milky Way Galaxy is a hundred thousand light years across. That means a ship going one hundred thousand times the speed of light, would still need a full year to cross the Milky Way. And that’s before we even start to think about the crazy relativistic effects that come into play.

But there is good news. The good news is that most readers have no technical understanding of these things, and are more interested in a good story than in realistic handling of the details of transportation.

Joss Whedon was once asked how fast the Firefly class freighter, “Serenity” traveled. His answer was a brilliant one. “She travels at the speed of plot.”

That works too.

Sean Golden:

Sean Golden is many different things. Father, husband, writer, programmer, project manager, gamer, crafter,fisherman, amateur astronomer and too many other things to bore you with. He took a year off from the grind of corporate cubicle farms to write “Warrior” and “Warlock,” both available on Amazon.com. The third book in the series, “Warlord” is in the final stages of writing now. Sean has a BS in physics from Louisiana State University and had the second highest rated rogue on his World of Warcraft server after taking down the Lich King, and then retiring from raiding.
Read more from Sean Golden at Www.seandgolden.com


Greek Myths and Legends

When we decide to make Myths and Legends the month’s topic, I wanted to write about tWEB_N Greene-1he Greek myths and legends. Why? Because these stories are part of my cultural backbone. I even had to study them in high school.

Man has a powerful need to explain the unexplainable. We attribute human qualities to things that aren’t us. We do it often enough that the tendency has its own name – anthropomorphism. Ancient Greeks and Romans tried to control and understand the world around them by making natural phenomenon, and complex concepts like justice, medicine and war, into people. Well, more than people. Gods who were as flawed and petty as their hapless worshipers. The world around them was big and scary. Attributing the whims of the weather, or the path of your life to superior beings made the world understandable and brought some comfort. After all, if the Fates or the Furies were rearranging the thread of your life, how much were you really to blame for the bad things that happened? Even Hercules was the Furies’ play thing.

Our world was forever changed by these myths. Writers still look for our Muses.

Retellings – putting a new spin on a classic- are popular in just about every genre right now, especially the YA and fantasy markets. I think part of the reason is that we are still asking the same questions, and for lots of the same reason. Millionaires played fast and loose with other people’s money and destroyed their financial well-being. Companies traded paper as if it was gold, and the world economy shuttered and nearly collapsed when people stopped believing that paper had value. Seems a bit like the Fates and Furies messing with us. Natural disasters abound.

In one of my Greek Myth retellings, Apollo asks, “You call them earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornados. I call them Titans. Does it really matter? The point is the world’s in upheaval.”

Does it really matter?apollorising-final galley

Probably not.

So, why the love affair with Greek myths?

They are part of who we are. They show us where we came from and, maybe, where we’re going.

As writers, the Greek myths give us inspiration. By referring to them, we build resonance. By rewriting them, we remake the world we live in. Myths and legends let us tell stories about people and events that are greater than we are. They allow us to explore the world in a way we couldn’t otherwise. We can explore real problems with the veneer of that other place, another time. It’s safe to question how the world works in a myth. And it’s entirely human.