Graphic Writing: Drugs
Writing about drugs is hard to get right. It involves a lot of research or a lot of experience, the latter of which is not advisable in any possible way. Due to this, worry can cause writing to become clichéd and over-reliant on stereotypes, or either too detailed or vague for the reader to form a relatable connection. All of this is best avoided, and that is the purpose of this piece.
This essay contains graphic descriptions of drugs and drug use.
To write about drugs in a way that will resonate with your readers you need confidence in what you are saying and your ability to write it effectively. Holding back or avoiding the difficult moments will come across to readers, whether you choose to be explicit in your writing or you prefer to avoid graphic depictions. As with all challenging subjects, you must hold your nerve.
Writing about drugs and their use involves combining common slang with medical effects. This can be a difficult balance to maintain, but the main focus should always be to use the words your characters would in ways that suit the world you have created.
The methods for taking most drugs, along with the effects and chemical reactions they deliver, can be easily found through a little research, but adapting those into words that make sense to both your readers and characters is more of a challenge. Rather than worrying about detailing the exact outcome as it occurs medically, describing how the character experiences events is both a safer and more successful way of imparting drug use.
The slang for certain drugs is a difficult vocabulary to maintain as it is every-changing and varies based on country, region, town, even by streets. Some writers use what they know or have heard locally, others invent their own. Whichever you choose, remain consistent and ensure you apply the right words to the correct substances.
We are getting some C or RX at this time. Shoot it in the mainline, son. You can smell it going in, clean and cold in your nose and throat then a rush of pure pleasure right through the brain lighting up those C connections. Your head shatters in white explosions. Ten minutes later you want another shot… you will walk across town for another shot. But if you can’t score C you eat, sleep and forget about it.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
The slang and phrasing here is intrinsic to the narrator of the scene, and Burroughs’ schizophrenic prose perfectly reflects the bizarre and surreal subject matter of the story. After establishing this description of ‘C’ Burroughs continues to reference it simply by the letter, as the reader has a strong understanding of its effects and addiction levels, but in a way that is suitable for the writing, rather than medical-style exposition.
To deliver a more detailed explanation that uses some medical terminology, but forgoes reading like a textbook, consider the voice the story is told in. Offering descriptions using details, rather than similes or metaphors, can give a clear picture of the scene without losing the reader’s immersion.
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Having already established Holmes’ irregular interactions with cocaine solution in the first novel, Doyle begins the second with the detective indulging his habit. The use of medical language is hidden by Doyle’s noting of other items, including the morocco case and velvet lining of the arm-chair. Ian Fleming used a similar technique in the Bond novels, and when done correctly it allows for plenty of detail without obscuring the narrative voice.
The most important aspect of the language you use is it must be suitable for the characters and world you are writing. Would they say that word? If not, what would they say?
With drugs, the realism of how they are acquired and taken is often a falling point. A little imagination for the former and some research for the latter can iron out both elements fairly easily, then leaving the actual experiencing of the drugs. That is the point many writers lose their readers. If a single lungful of marijuana gets someone so high they laugh uncontrollably, or one line of cocaine causes hallucinations, you need to go back and look things up. Ensure the effects are realistic and in line with both the type of drug and the volume consumed. Once you are at the point where your characters are under the influence, however, you can throw realism out the window and show the world as they now experience it, in whatever transformative and heavily altered state applies.
Here ah am in the junky’s limbo; too sick tae sleep, too tired tae stay awake. A twilight zone ay the senses where nothing’s real except the crushing, omnipresent misery n pain in your mind n body. Ah notice with a start that ma Ma’s actually sitting on my bed, looking silently at me.
As soon as ah’m aware ay this, she could be siting oan ma chest for the level ay crushing discomfort ah feel.
She puts her hand oantae ma sweaty brow. Her touch feels horrible, creepy, violating.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
After Renton overdoses on heroin he wakes up in his old bedroom, and Welsh unpacks his thoughts in a slow, self-pitying inner monologue. The attention to detail and simplistic description combine to form a visceral sense of what he is going through, and the extended scene only gets worse. The choice of vocabulary and dialect enhances the character’s perception and allows him to communicate his pain in a way that feels natural and unforced.
Whilst writing about the actual details of drugs requires research and realism, the effects caused can be explored in the most fantastic and outlandish ways.
Nazar’s body starts to shrink. His suit is absorbed into his skin which becomes pale and translucent. His head grows. His hair disappears and his eyes widen and blacken. The train moves in ever tighter circles until the carriage curls back on itself and becomes a ring spinning round and around in a circular tunnel. Luke has slumped down in his seat and although he gives every appearance of sleeping—his breathing’s regular and his head is tipped to one side—his eyes are half open and stare at me down his snout. Maybe he’s awake and only playing along with all this? What am I saying? He’s a dog and now Nazar’s turned into the fucking Roswell Incident.
Hitman by Max Kinnings
Here Kinnings develops a completely unreal scene as the narrator sits on the London Underground, possibly talking to man with psychic powers, after taking a cocktail of pretty much every class A drug you can think of. The train has already gone through Venice and over a mountain by this point, and the protagonist’s grip on reality has well and truly gone. The style of prose demonstrates the unravelling of the narrator’s understanding of events, and as the effects of the drugs increase so do the hallucinations. Finally, Kinnings returns some sentience to the protagonist, allowing him a brief moment of clarity where he questions his own description, whilst still completely believing the bizarre scene apparently unfolding before his eyes.
By combining accurate facts with interesting descriptions of their effects, drugs can be realistic without hampering the experience your characters go through. Following a character’s journey as the effects take hold is a reliable way of exploring the nature of the experience, but with some clever writing and imagination the same can be done within a third-person setting.
Pacing is often the cause of problems in scenes, and those involving drugs are no exception. How long a drug takes to kick in, and the length of the effects, both need to be taken into account, as does the level of mind-altering the particular substance delivers. Research and imagination play an equal part here to deliver effective and well-considered scenes that are immersive to the reader without passing too quickly or reading as self-indulgent.
I panicked and swallowed a handful of fireflies and black widows the inferno had not. Shiny glass teardrops shattered between my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory. A lifetime of days, years, minutes and months, gone, but for a lone scrap, scorched and snagged on a frayed nerve ending and snapping in the breeze.
Dermaphoria by Craig Clevenger
This opening passage of Dermaphoria introduces the narrator and the events immediately preceding the novel, where he took a large quantity of hallucinogens. Clevenger unrolls the process through a drug-induced stupor as the narrator is still coming around and yet to determine where he is, or even who he might be. Long sentences and abstract terminology give a palpable sense of the state-of-mind being described, and the poetic language elevates the description of the effects to a contradictory level that is both euphoric and horrific.
Elongating sentences can create both fast, relentless pace, and slow meandering, depending on the types of vocabulary used. Shorter, more concise language evokes speed and brutality, whilst lengthy words reduce the pace considerably. In a similar fashion, the choice of whether or not to break paragraph can change the sense of a scene and allow space to breathe mid-sequence.
As I said it, a strange, jittery energy rose up inside me, radiating from the chest out.
In my pocket.
Biting my leg.
The spot of blood.
Moving. Inside John. Inside me.
All of a sudden everything was too bright, like somebody turned up the saturation on all the colours in the room. Everything came into high focus, a high-def signal. I spotted a moth on the opposite wall, and noticed a small tear in one of its wings. I heard a guy talking on his cell, and realised he was on the sidewalk outside the building.
What the fuck?
John Dies at the End by David Wong
The effects of the ‘soy sauce’ that the narrator accidentally injected himself with—or was bitten by—have just kicked in and he is realising the drug’s power. As the story progresses, Wong steers it in a considerably more bizarre direction, but this is the moment where the narrator stops observing and becomes part of the inexplicable. By using short sentences and frequent breaks, the impact of the realisation that the drug is inside the narrator is amplified. Then, when the effects begin, Wong delivers them in a single, streaming chunk. As the narrator is still somewhat level, and the ride is just beginning, there is time for a call-back to the short sentences to allow some form of evaluation.
Just like any other scene, the choice of words and their arrangement on the page can drastically alter the reader’s perception. Drug use and drug effects can feel exploitative or unexplored depending on the pace. Use these tools to your advantage and regulate the writing to best suit your needs.
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.