As you might have guessed by now, I may have done one or two silly things in my life. Thankfully, some of them have helped lead me to stop making a few common mistakes in my writing.
One of those silly things happened while I was in college. On that day, I was sitting on my bed doing I-don't-remember-what. In that apartment, all the beds had a cinderblock under each foot to raise them up and create storage space underneath. So I was probably a good three feet off the ground when I noticed something I wanted on the floor. Again, I don't remember exactly what it was. (I'm sensing a pattern here.)
Feeling a bit lazy, I didn't want to get off the bed to grab this thing. I couldn't quite reach it, so I put one hand on a nearby cardboard box to support myself so I could reach farther.
Then the box collapsed.
I fell off the bed and headfirst into one of the cinderblocks under my roommate's bed.
I've read this kind of thing or seen it in movies time and time again. Someone takes a whack to the head—from a mugger with a baseball bat, a punch to the jaw, a bump into a wall, or whatever—and goes down for however long the writer wants. Then they wake up with a headache but no permanent damage.
Here's the thing, though: Knocking someone out is a lot harder—and has a lot more side effects—than books and movies make it seem. Sorry, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—as much as I loved you growing up, you were bad models for this topic. :)
In my case, even though I'd hit the cinderblock with my entire body weight, I never lost consciousness. I did end up with a major headache, dizziness, and ringing in my ears. Most of the symptoms passed within a few hours; I think my head was tender for a couple of days. I certainly felt silly about the whole thing. But that was it.
As this post from the Crime Writer's Fiction Blog (maintained by an MD) points out, there's a lot of variation in how much force it takes to KO someone. But if a person does get hit on the head hard enough to lose consciousness, they've very likely sustained a concussion, which can plague them for weeks or months. And if a victim is unconscious for longer than a few minutes, the blow has probably caused bleeding in the brain or brain damage.
So all those times a character gets whacked over the head and wakes up imprisoned in the bad guy's hideout a few hours later? Yep, you guessed it. If someone stays out for that long, they're likely to not wake up at all. Even if the character is only out for a few minutes and wakes up in the back of the bad guy's car, they'll probably be seriously impaired from concussion symptoms like headaches, disrupted vision, dizziness, ringing in the ears, nausea, and vomiting (Mayo Clinic). They won't be in any condition to free themselves and deliver a beatdown on their captors.
The other common mistake writers make about head injuries has to do with the victim's memory. Usually the KO'd character wakes up and knows exactly what happened to them. Unless they got hit from behind, they can even identify their attacker.
In reality, someone who gets knocked out will literally not know what hit them. In fact, people don't even remember what happens to them directly before or directly after a knockout blow. As a brain scientist explains in this excerpt from a CBC Radio episode, the theory is that this type of injury creates a major disruption in the brain. Not only does it cause loss of consciousness, but it also messes up the process of storing information. You can't remember details that your brain never stored in the first place.
I know, I know: we can make a case for using artistic license to meet the needs of a story. At the same time, some readers get really frustrated by factual inaccuracies. And if we want readers to suspend their disbelief for the unusual facets of our work—magic, strange coincidences, or whatever—we need to make sure we're doing our research and getting the ordinary details right.
Speaking of research, I've found that for us writers, Google often isn't enough. (You wouldn't believe how much trouble I had figuring out what the Angelus bell sounds like for one of my screenplays.) If you're a bit stumped on where to look for credible sources of information about brain injury or any other topic, click here to book a time for me to help you get started.
(Thanks to National Cancer Institute for sharing their work on Unsplash.)