The Writer’s Toolbox: Poisons and How They Kill You

A lot of my Writer’s Toolbox posts have been about the technical side of writing — the Character Development post, apparently, was a huge hit. (Perspective: It got two comments in the five days since I posted it. PLAYIN’ THE BIG LEAGUES NOW, PEOPLE.) You can be the most technically proficient writer in the world, but you’re not going to actually write for shit unless you have a vast base of knowledge and random facts to draw on. The more random facts you know, the more interesting your stories will be — at least to me. I love learning actual facts from SFF books.

Poisons are one of those neat things to have in your core of knowledge, but no one ever gets as up-close-and-personal with them as I want them to. They just do the Hollywood thing:

Alfred and Zach are sitting at a table. They are arch nemeses. They are drinking wine whilst engaged in witty repartee. The scene is full of tension.
Zach: *makes a smug declaration that all of Alfred’s plans have been foiled* *chugs glass of wine*
Alfred: *smirks and makes a pun which reveals the wine was poisoned*
Zach: *eyes bug, clutches throat/chest, falls out of chair, possible trickle of blood from corner of mouth*

You would think that the science behind that particular poison is that it doesn’t start working until someone declares its presence, whereupon it acts instantly. One of the more distinct and lovable uses of this poison (for surely they must all be the same poison) was in The Princess Bride, wherein it was named iocane, and exactly follows the above script.

Now, there have been some really wonderful and interesting lists of poisons, so I’m going to link to them rather than trying to poorly replicate one of them, but I’ll give you a quick summary of some of the most popular poisons and then we will Discuss.

First of all, if you want lots of detail and description, here are some of the lists you can choose from: A list. Another list. A third list. And a video by Hank Green! Because we all love Hank Green, right?

Something that many writers seem to misunderstand is that poison isn’t some kind of magical, lethal compound that simply ends your life for no particular reason. Each poison causes a reaction in the body, and it’s that reaction which brings about one’s demise — that’s why small doses of poisons can also be used as medicine! They give you the reaction you want, without the unfortunate consequences. Here are my examples.

Hemlock
You know it because of Socrates. Fairly common roadside weed, actually. You die because of muscle paralysis, starting at your feet and working upwards until finally it reaches your respiratory muscles. You die of suffocation pretty peacefully and that’s about it. CPR and artificial respirators would help with this.

Pufferfish
Tetrodotoxin! The poison is found specifically in the liver of the fish. When sushi chefs are preparing pufferfish, they use two knives — one for gutting the fish, the other for carving the flesh. One of the neat/scary things about tetrodotoxin is that you can be poisoned by it by eating it, breathing it, or even just by getting some on a cut or wound. Tetrodotoxin blocks your nerves from firing signals, and then — yup, you guessed it: Paralysis and suffocation, although there are a host of other side effects, like nausea, dizziness, stomach pains, etc. Check out the symptoms and their citations on the Wikipedia page.

Arsenic
Just read this article on the Dartmouth College website. It’s awesome. To sum up this poison, it kills you by organ failure — it can be done all in one go, or over a loooong period of time. If you’ve ever seen the movie Curse of the Golden Flower, I would guess (no spoilers here) that it is arsenic which… well, you know, if you’ve seen it.

Cyanide
Like arsenic, cyanide has been around for a while. The ancient Egyptians got it by processing peach and apricot pits. This is another suffocating one, except it seems that the suffocation happens because your cells can suddenly no longer use the oxygen. There’s also convulsions, so it’s pretty dramatic. If you’re SUPER interested in seeing exactly what it looks like, look up some videos of the Michael Marin trial… Or not.

Snake bites
You’ve got a couple different options here, depending on the snake. Most of them are nerve-attackers. Some venoms block nerve receptors, causing muscle paralysis, some of them destroy the things that kill off what I’ll call “messenger thingummies” so that instead of NOT getting any nerve signals, you get the same one BUT IT KEEPS GOING — that causes seizures and muscle cramps.

If you’re going to be poisoning a character, you’ll need to do some worldbuilding first. Decide whether your poison will be derived from an animal, vegetable, or mineral, and then choose some symptoms. SYMPTOMS, I said.  SYMPTOMS. Do your research! Also remember that very few poisons are actually tasteless or odorless — that’s the whole reason why people had taste-testers, back in the day.

Make up a poison, come up with some trivia about it, and post it in the comments below!

One thought on “The Writer’s Toolbox: Poisons and How They Kill You

  1. merp11 says:

    Pretty sneaky sis and all that humbuggery. Forgive my weirdness, this was actually interesting.

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