The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Seven-Percent Trope: Drug Use in Your Story


Illicit-drug use in literature dates back well over 100 years. And for good reason. Like any other foible, substance use/abuse can lend gravitas to a character. 

Every drug aficionado, from Tommy Chong to your cousin Tim, will tell you that Sherlock Holmes used cocaine. Truly, Doyle’s consulting detective used cocaine as well as morphine, alcohol, and tobacco. Probably had a serious ‘Nilla Wafer habit, too but we don’t judge. Motivation is the meat of the matter and most authors aim for the underlying drama rather than gratuitous sensationalism. Most authors.


Richard Stark’s Parker returns from left-for-dead betrayal to find his woman, Lynn with a debilitating heroin habit. After her introduction, Stark writes Lynn out with a convenient overdose because even in a crime novel featuring a murderous heister, the times, (published in 1962) required a didactic down-nose at addicts. 

Stark’s depiction is hardly an anomaly. Popular fiction of the 20th Century rendered drug users as double-crossing junkies or tragic kids just trying to fit in. Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (published in 1985) mapped the latter cliché like an ABC-After-School Special. Other clichés included spoiled playboys and the virulent, “drugs turned ‘em into monsters,” sub-trope, e.g. Thomas Harris’ meth-addled drug lord, Evelda Drumgo. Dirty needles tied in her hair to infect others with HIV/AIDs is both exploitive and ridiculous. Hannibal was published in 1999. 

Who’s done it well?


John Sanford applies years of experience as a Twin Cities beat reporter to his detailed depictions of drug use in his Lucas Davenport series. Davenport is the do-right (mostly) hero-detective. However, Del Capslock, is the bad-hygiene-real-undercover cop who steals this show, telling a new undercover cop that his “big, HMO teeth” is gonna get him killed. Capslock is also Davenport’s amphetamine source.

Iain Levison’s How to Rob an Armored Car is helmed by three stoners, Mitch, Doug, and Kevin. An assistant manager for a big-box store, a line cook at a fast-casual restaurant, and a dog walker, these three could be our ne’er-do-well cousins who took the great recession on the chin. Their drug and alcohol use is nothing more than self-medication for what seemed to be generational depression.

Where to start? 

There is a wealth of clinical literature about addiction. For the lay-person, I cannot recommend Dr. Gabor Maté’s In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts highly enough. Maté has treated addiction for over 20 years. His prose are insightful, artful, and above all, compassionate. In fiction, James Fogle’s Drugstore Cowboy, is both artful and hard as coffin nails.

Mostly, though, your first step should be to assess your intent. Furthering your story, telling the truth, and depicting the addict as a human being instead of a cardboard-cutout, are worthy goals in writing addiction. The best writers understand the base-most motivations for drug use: pain and necessity.

Sanford’s detectives use amphetamines to chase the badmen and stave-off overwhelming emotions. His psychopath-pathologist uses drugs to function among people—gauging whether the effects of PCP (stiff and wooden) or cocaine (aloof bordering obnoxious) will best help him play the grieving husband at his murdered wife’s funeral. 

However, temperament is an equal partner with need in determining the method. Sherlock Holmes primarily uses cocaine to treat his depression. Of course, Holmes is a man of action and a genius in motion. Mitch, Doug, and Kevin—more victims of an illness they don’t have the tools to process or even discuss—land closer to most addicts. 

Seek clinical sources.

Once you’ve identified your character motivations, temperament, and drug of choice you’d do well to understand the drug effects. Cocaine and amphetamines are stimulates. Heroin and barbiturates are sedatives. Mescaline/peyote (mushrooms) and LSD are hallucinogens/psychotropics. But there are always unintended/side effects just as there are bullshit stories about main effects.

Vincent Vega spends more time chasing a toilet than Marsellus’ briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Nowhere near as romantic as Tarantino’s languid shots of Vincent shooting up, the repeated scenes of him on the toilet, on the way to the toilet, and ultimate exit from the toilet represent the hard truth: opioids cause constipation. Or runaway diarrhea. It’s a crapshoot.

I once heard about a guy who…

Anecdotes are prone to hyperbole and often lead to cliché. A popular “story” from my childhood was of the crazed PCP (phencyclidine, a hallucination-inducing anesthetic) addict who “took six rounds from a .357 magnum and kept coming.” I heard the same story in four different cities and saw it depicted in Sharky’s Machine. 

Paul McCartney met singer/songwriter Harry Nilssen at a party. Nilssen offered McCartney PCP, (then used exclusively in veterinary medicine). McCartney asked if it was fun. Nilssen replied, “no” and McCartney declined. No gunplay involved.

Our primary responsibility is to tell a story.

Cocaine, PCP, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine all fell out of fashion, like double-knit safari suits, because the consequences are often devastating. However, just like poor fashion choices, they cycle back through every generation or so. Focus on the pain at the root of the addiction, what’s available to your protag. Chose a key detail and depict the use/effects honestly—and make sure it supports your story without becoming a carny act. 

Critics may complain about the alcoholic cop or coke-snorting socialite but cliché and trope are two sides of the same coin. A light touch is necessary. Ultimately, the difference between a trope and a cliché is application. The trope fuels your story. The cliché just wastes your readers’ time.

The photo above: Day 35 of 365 – A Private Stash by Jesse! S? source/use details here.