The other day on a mystery readers’ mailing list we were discussing whether it’s realistic for the intrepid sleuth to get knocked out cold at least once per book, but not to have any lasting effects. Generally, the Nancy Drew clone will be clocked and will JUST miss seeing the perp, but will leap up a few minutes later with a mild headache or a tiny bump. However, this is not reality. Sports people are confessing that there’s such a thing as a bad concussion and post-concussion syndrome. Most of the readers claimed that this is a trope of murder mysteries and can be safely allowed to stay. Others of us complained that people believe what they read repeatedly, and therefore may not take a bump on the head or a concussion as seriously as it should be taken.
Writers should be familiar with (in other words, Google up) “repetitive head injury syndrome.” Getting boinked** may be an accepted plot point in this genre, but it isn’t realistic for characters to be knocked out for a few rounds and then magically come to (even with a headache or dizziness), stand up, and go back after the bad guy. In general, if someone has lost consciousness even briefly due to a blow, it’s serious. It’s usually a concussion or worse.
** (I know what you’re going to say. Let’s hold that screed for the end, shall we?)
Concussions take a while to get over. The brain has been bruised. There could be a hematoma. Most likely there will be some cerebral edema and some need to prevent swelling of the brain. Jumping back up and getting hit again (second-impact syndrome) but not suffering long-term injury is not realistic at all. Some readers will just accept it as “that’s what happens in the movies,” but it has always bugged me.
Multiple concussions, even spread out over time, will often result in neuro consequences. They’re finally confessing that athletes suffer long-term damage from all those bonks on the head. (I remember my dad saying years ago that President Ford had played football without a helmet, and that it showed.) I’d rather spare my sleuth that kind of thing. I want her to be just as sharp and sneaky next time. Another problem is that so MANY readers and viewers get the impression that it’s not a problem to be hit on the head, as you are only “knocked out” for a few minutes or hours. It’s not a “funny prank” to sneak up behind someone and bash him or her on the skull with anything (although when people are drinking, they can lose all sense of this.) Being hit on the head hard enough to have a bump warrants a visit to the ER, always.
Also, fistfights in fiction and on film last for several go-rounds. In real life, as my mother-in-law the emergency room nurse used to say, the first guy throws a punch to the second guy’s jaw and that’s the end of it–they both go to the ER, one with a broken/bruised jaw or loose teeth, and the other with a broken/bruised hand. Yikes! If you are hit on the head with a barstool or, worse, by a broken beer bottle, you will have a few days of recovery in store, at least.
These devices make a plot easy, of course: the sleuth wanders into someplace she shouldn’t, and gets knocked out just long enough for the crime to happen. The perp doesn’t kill her (because the script says not–or there wouldn’t be a book!), but knocks her out. She’s knocked out and jumps up a little dizzy, but can accomplish all sorts of feats in order to catch the perp. It’s a lot easier for the author this way. But it’s gotten out of hand now that you see detectives getting knocked out repeatedly and being just fine after wrapping a bandage around their heads.
My seventy-ish aunt fell down and hit her head last year. She was taken to the hospital with a hematoma. During the night, she got up to go to the bathroom after not having the nurses respond quickly enough to suit her (she was still “shell-shocked,” probably, by the first head injury) and fell against the nightstand and hurt her head again. She narrowly avoided serious surgery and had to stay in the hospital for a while, and this all resulted in her short-term memory loss. She is now at the point of forgetting what she’s doing. She will be in the midst of making dinner and wonder what she has already put into the food and what she hasn’t. Or she calls my uncle over (repeatedly) to ask him what day of the week it is and whether she has taken her pills. We’ve resorted to a series of index cards posted on the walls around the house to remind her of her current situation and address. It is really awful to see a former librarian who knew so much reduced to this. I absolutely hate it.
My niece who’s a grad student (and star of her class) fainted the other day and hit her head on the tile floor. Now the neurologist says she has a grade three concussion and post-concussive syndrome. He’s worried, and so are we.
** (“Boinked.” Yes, we’re getting to that. Be patient.)
The sleuth being portrayed as getting away with a bit of dizziness or a goose egg and some disorientation is misleading readers.
I know fiction is fiction, and that certain liberties can be taken. They’re expected as tropes of the genre. Certainly my beloved Shell Scott mysteries are full of the “be bonked on head, pass out, get back up in a few minutes with a goose egg, have a gunfight, be just fine” trope. But still, with modern mysteries perhaps we can get rid of some of these hoary old standard bits. There are other ways to put our sleuths out of commission or out of the picture and powerless for a while. A new trope is for the cell phone to go dead, or have no bars (“can you hear me now?!”), or be stolen. That’s a much less painful solution!
Another reader dismissed this entire worry. “Do readers complain that characters rarely stop to eat or never go potty?”
Well, I don’t know, because my characters do all of that and more, although not (I hope) too much. I often hear that readers get the munchies after experiencing one of my sleuth Ari’s repasts. And Ari has been known to go to the bathroom with the girls (every woman in an out-to-dinner situation trooping off in a group) in order to hear clues. Or even just because she has to go!
But then I think I put more of the everyday life of my character(s) into my fiction. It’s a more intimate or closer-in viewpoint than normal. Whatever “normal” is.
** The footnote!
OKAY, NOW WE CAN ADDRESS “bonked/boinked.”
Someone flew gleefully into the fray to announce that I was wrong, that “boinked” meant “screwed” in the sexual sense, and that this was the REAL dictionary definition. Therefore, they LIKED the idea of being boinked as a plot point. Ha ha.
Really, now. That’s the vulgar definition. Anyone reasonable could get from the context that I was using the word as a “sound” onomatopoeia. Must we always grab onto the most vulgar definition of a word immediately? “Huh, huh, huh–you said ‘laid.'”
Must we always rush to legitimize any slang redefinition of a word and say that it’s the evolution of language? Yes, language will change. But I don’t know that it serves us well to always be totally descriptive and never prescriptive. Sometimes a useful word shouldn’t be subverted to make YET ANOTHER EUPHEMISM for f**king when there are already SO MANY. (Freaking, frelling, frotzing, fracking, balling, screwing, et alia.)
Can’t we keep a perfectly good onomatopoeia? It’s a word that represents a sound, like bam!, crash!, or squish. You know, like in the old “Batman” cartoon/live action television program. (I still love that one. Really, Burt Ward WAS a Boy Wonder.)
The online dictionary definition may refer to “boink, boing: interjections imitative of a reverberating sound. First Known Use: 1987. Also vulgar slang.”
But that’s not the original meaning. I believe it was a “sound” word first, and a vulgarity later.
The Calvin and Hobbes cartoon volume, “Scientific Progress Goes *Boink*,” uses the term as an onomatopoeia. A scientist has named her webpage after the cartoon’s punchline, and WIRED magazine online hosts the article “Why Scientific Progress Sometimes Goes Boink | Wired Science”as well.
The Muppets song “pukka-pukka-pukka-squeetily-boink” uses it as an onomatopoeia, too (lyrics here). Surely they were unaware of the DIRTY BUT MOST LEGIT MEANING.
Finally, there’s the Boink Equestrian online store for riding attire.
Thus, I’m not the only person using the term as an onomatopoeia. Why should we always glom onto the double entendre in everything? (“Because it’s fun” is an irresponsible answer.)
I’m dismayed to think that tomorrow another perfectly useful word will be ruined by being designated as the next euphemism. “Gronk,” “bleah,” or “aaack” may soon be so appropriated (horrors). Don’t we have sufficiently many euphemisms now? Isn’t there something else we as a society would like to smirk about? Suspenders are pretty funny. And so are bees, if you stop to think about it.
How do you vote on “boinked”?