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Writing Cliché #2 – Unconscious transitions.

It’s the end of an action scene, all flying swords and glinting axes and blood and brains and damn it how do we get Bob out of here without totally fucking up the pacing? Oh, I know, he gets knocked unconscious. Easy. I can put in a chapter break and he can wake up in the hospital next morning.


Once again this is something we have no doubt all read somewhere. And once again I can put my hand up to having used it before in some of my thankfully unpublished work.

As I’ve said before, clichés are cliché because they work. This is certainly true. It does get the reader from point A to point B without losing pace and with the minimal amount of effort. But there is a fundamental problem with this concept. Namely –

Brain Damage

Being knocked unconscious is a concussion. There are reasons why sporting codes the world over are changing their contact rules to minimise the chance of concussion, and has anyone seen that Will Smith movie all about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE?

My first aid guide informs me that the first thing I should do if someone is unconscious from a concussion is


(Ok, it hasn’t got the f-word in it, but it should, that would be fun). And the longer the person stays unconscious from a blow to the head the more likely they are to suffer brain damage and turn into a complete vegetable.

So unless this is the outcome you’re after (all good if you are) then don’t do this. Even worse than the warrior in a fight is the poor stupid investigator in all too many crime novels, goes snooping around where they are not wanted, ooh what is this? BAM! Knocked out. Wakes up tied to a chair. Wakes up feeling groggy and with an aching head but capable of fairly coherent thought and witty banter with their captor. No. If you’re hitting someone on the back of the head you are much more likely to kill them.

All right then, so how about the trusty chokehold?

The chokehold or stranglehold is a hold that restricts the passage of air or blood passing through someone’s neck resulting in unconsciousness (and on rare occasions death if not done correctly). It can be achieved without having greater physical strength and so can theoretically be done by anyone who can get their arm around someone else’s neck. (I don’t suggest you try this at home, but go ahead and do whatever you like to your characters). Keep in mind though, that the length of time someone would be unconscious from a properly done chokehold is only about 20-30 seconds.

“So is there any situation where this can work?”

The only way this concept flies at all is if magic is involved. And there you have to be very careful not to be invoking deus ex machina just to achieve your ends. And logical rules should still apply. A magical blow/explosion should still knock you unconscious in the normal way, while some kind of potion or spell might sap consciousness for an extended period of time without causing damage. Even if this is the case, keep in mind that the body still needs to survive. It’s a machine that must continue to run (unless we’re in a magical stasis bubble). So depending on the length of time, the body will require water, food and air, and will continue to shit and piss in a delightfully unmagical way.


Next Cliché: Dream Sequences

1 Comment

  1. Victoria Holt

    Thanks for the dose of reality. I did a search for “when your character is unconscious” because I had some misgivings about what’s going on with my MC. I remembered reading an amateurish book where their MC ended up in the hospital where he was out for a few weeks and woke to discover all the action and adventure had happened without him…and the reader. I didn’t want to emulate that grievous error! Good information.


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