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Knocking People Out: Easier In Fiction Than In Real Life

Bam by Beyond My Ken (detail)It’s a common scenario in many kinds of fiction, including fantasy: a character passes out, either because they’ve been knocked on the head or injured or drugged, and the world “goes black” or they “fall into darkness”. The unfortunate character usually wakes up several hours or days later in a new place, disoriented and sometimes a prisoner or a patient of another character.

You can see why this happens often in books, films and TV shows, because there are good narrative reasons for it:

– It’s the perfect fade-to-black moment for an end-of-chapter (or end-of-scene) cliff-hanger.
– It allows the narrative to jump forward in time and also makes a quick change of location possible.
– It’s an easy way for one character to kidnap another without a whole lot of kicking and screaming.

As you might have guessed, things aren’t quite so easy in real life. We may all have an inkling that these knock-outs are not the most plausible of segues, but sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are pure myth, and which ones hold some truth. So I thought I’d examine a few common kinds of these fictional “fade-to-blacks”.

A BLOW TO THE HEAD

Pow by Beyond My Ken (detail)This is probably the most common kind of knock out in fiction. A hard whack with a fist or the butt of a gun and voilà! – they’re out cold until such time as you’re ready to wake them again. While it’s possible in real life, it turns out it’s not as lightly done or easy as fiction would have us believe, because:

– You can actually do permanent damage to someone by knocking them out this way – unconsciousness occurs because the brain endures trauma, moving inside the skull. If you hit too hard you might also just kill a person.
– The person would likely have more side effects after waking if they have suffered a concussion (e.g. vomiting) – side effects which fictional characters rarely display.
– It might not render them unconscious for more than a few seconds, and if it does they may have gone into a coma from which you can’t be sure they’ll ever wake.

A CHOKE HOLD

Choke by lewis wilsonSometimes a character is gripped in a choke hold until they slump to the ground, unresponsive and ready to be secreted away. Again, this is plausible, as the cutting off of blood flow to the brain can indeed make people faint or pass out, and it’s less dangerous than a blow to the head. However, it’s still not lightly or easily done, because:

– As this TV tropes entry mentions, choke-holds can still cause permanent harm or kill, even when done by trained individuals.
– It often takes longer than depicted in fiction, and the choke hold has to be maintained while the character is presumably struggling to free themselves.
– This method might only cause a temporary faint, not hours of unconsciousness (and if it does, you may have done some serious damage).

A CHLOROFORM RAG

Grunge Background by Unknown ArtistIt’s a classic scenario from old-school crime fiction: an assailant presses a chloroform-soaked handkerchief over the nose and mouth of a person to subdue them. While less common in fiction nowadays, this idea of a shady figure in a dark alley pouncing with a drugged rag has endured. It is also, however, impractical in reality, because:

– It takes a long time for the chloroform to take effect – about five minutes according to this article – so it wouldn’t be as instantaneous, easy, or quiet as it is in the stories.
– The unconsciousness might not last very long, especially if the rag is removed.
– It can also be dangerous if the dosage is too high – even for doctors using it in a controlled environment as an anaesthetic, there was still a risk of killing patients.

A BATTLE WOUND

Stab by e_monkFictional heroes and heroines are often wounded while battling evil, which can make them lose consciousness. This often happens after they take down the villain, so that we worry they have died in that heroic act… Until they’re revived and informed they have saved the world. So is this plausible? Well, in this case it seems so, because:

– Blood loss can lead to light-headedness and unconsciousness, so an injured character who has lost a lot of blood could certainly pass out. Of course, they are also in danger of dying, but then, in fictional scenes that’s often made clear too.
Pain can effect blood flow and heart rate, so it could also theoretically cause someone to faint, though the longevity of the unconsciousness is uncertain.

A POISONED OR DRUGGED MEAL, DART, OR INJECTION

Poison Bottle by VherbreteauPoisons or drugs might be one of the most plausible fictional methods for a prolonged, controlled unconsciousness. While blows to the head, blood loss, and chloroform rags might work in real life, they are all pretty unreliable ways to render someone unconscious for a long time without killing them. I’m certainly not suggesting drugs aren’t dangerous, but:

– There are plenty of real-world sedatives and drugs out there that make people sleep, pass out, or not remember what has happened to them (some used in sinister ways, others used deliberately as prescriptions), and if the dosage is correct they are potentially less dangerous and conspicuous than other methods.
– Even in medieval times, plenty of plants were used to make poisons and sleeping potions (e.g. dwale is believed to have been used as an anaesthetic in the middle ages). These were probably more dangerous and unreliable than modern ones, but if a story is set in a non-industrialised society, like many fantasies are, it’s still plausible a skilled poisoner or apothecary could create the desired effect.

MAGICAL TRAUMA

Zap by JAM ProjectI know what you might be thinking – how can you possibly assess the plausibility of losing consciousness due to a magical injury or overuse of magic? Well, if you accept the conceit that a magical trauma would disturb the body or brain and its functions, it turns out that in real life:

– Disturbances to the blood vessels, heart or blood pressure that cause a lack of blood flow to the brain can cause fainting or “syncope”.
– Other disturbances to the body’s systems and rhythms, such as the nervous system and breathing, can cause fainting.
– As mentioned earlier, pain can also affect blood flow and cause someone to pass out.
– If you liken magic to electricity, electrocution can cause people to go into cardiac arrest, but they need to be resuscitated pretty quickly or they will die.

However, it’s probably important to note that fainting is often only brief, not for hours or days, so a long period of unconsciousness might be less plausible, unless the magical trauma has a similar effect to a blow to the head, a drug, or blood loss.

But essentially, since the details are fuzzy on the magic front anyway, you can’t really call a magical knock out plausible or implausible.

ARE WE KNOCKING OUT CHARACTERS PLAUSIBLY?

Wham by NJphotografferAll in all, it seems there is always some truth to these fictional losses of consciousness, but the casual ease and control with which they are done, the length of time they last for, and the absence of side effects are often where things get less plausible. The most convincing fictional knock-outs appear to be the ones caused by drug ingestion or blood loss, or just by plain old magic.

As a reader or viewer, I can personally ignore implausible situations if the rest of the story is compelling. It’s only if the character is regularly and conveniently being knocked out with no side effects, or the situation is too glaringly unlikely (e.g. a casual knock on the head results in conveniently long hours of unconsciousness followed by a quick recovery) that I raise an eyebrow.

Title image by Beyond My Ken.

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One Comment

  1. This was such an interesting piece- again, something I never considered before- but now you point it out, it does seem ridiculously implausible how often people are knocked out without any lasting damage. It’s good that there are still places where it could be plausible and that people can ignore such elements of implausibility (as I have been doing till now- though no doubt I’ll start to question this more!)- or else what will writers do with themselves? 😉 awesome post!

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