“Everybody loves a thriller. Everyone also wants to write one, too,” wrote Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist. Building tension, creating an unbelievable yet utterly believable plot, raising stakes, and creating authentic characters, are all tributes of a good thriller.
And now you, dear writer, want to add the word “Medical” to this exciting genre?
What is the secret to writing authentic medical scenes?
I won’t mislead you––healthcare professionals do have a slight advantage in creating dramatic dialogue and medical scenes that feel lifted from real-life emergencies. However, novelists benefit from knowing the craft of writing in ways most medical professionals do not.
For the best of both worlds, follow these six tips for writing authentic medical scenes that will make your readers trust you… even if you aren’t a doctor.
1. Write from the point of view of the character. If she’s a doctor, write the scene as she would experience it.
In my debut medical thriller, Emergence, the protagonist Dr. Roxanne Roth is an anesthesiologist dealing with a difficult airway. Here’s an example of what not to do and how to correct it:
“Roxanne pushed a curved white plastic device into Anthony’s mouth to force his diseased tongue out of the way.”
Instead, write how an anesthesiologist would think of it:
“Roxanne pushed an oral airway into Anthony’s mouth to force his diseased tongue out of the way.”
2. Do not give too much medical procedure at the expense of drama. Write the drama as straight action.
Tell us what’s happening as the doctor character would experience it. There will be parts of the procedure a layperson will not understand, but they will get the gist, and it will be enough:
“Justin, get ready to trach! Liz, call stat back up.” Roxanne reached for an LMA.
An unnecessary medical explanation at this point would be explaining what an LMA is. It will take the reader out of the drama. It’s best if you let them get inside Roxanne’s head and not in the extensive research you did on airway devices.
3. Show, don’t tell. I know, I know. But really… Show.
For example, Roxanne would be concerned about the patient’s appearance during an airway emergency. What does she look for in assessing the situation?
“The oxygen monitor returned to normal, and Anthony’s color improved.”
Is not as descriptive as:
“The oxygen monitor returned to its higher pitch, and Anthony’s lips changed from blue to pink.”
“Roxanne induced anesthesia by pushing the hypnotic agent Propofol into the IV.”
Try to show us what that looks like instead:
“Roxanne picked up her syringe of Propofol, which with its milky appearance reminded her of a pina colada, and pushed it into the IV.”
4. Search the internet.
Neepery is trivia or highly detailed information an author includes in their work of fiction due to research.For my second novel, the protagonist is an interventional radiologist, and I am not. I searched the internet until I came upon an interventionalist on YouTube describing his workday. I transcribed his words and created an itinerary to pick and choose from for my protagonist.
5. Peruse medical textbooks.
There are many used and discounted–old editions are cheaper– medical textbooks available online, as well as medical school libraries you might utilize. If your character is a specialist, like an obstetrician, find which book real doctors rely on in OB-GYN residency and dig into it. Two general medical texts to consider:
- Bates Guide to Physical Examination and History Taking by Lynn S. Bickley, MD
- Cecil Essentials of Medicine: by Edward J. Wing MD (Editor) and Fred J. Schiffmann, MD (Editor)
6. The best way to get inside a doctor or nurse’s head? Consult one.
Once you’ve written a scene, ask if they would mind proofing it for authenticity. There are freelance physician medical writers on LinkedIn, but you might know someone who would be happy to help without charge.Reach out to one. Let them know you are a novelist researching your next book. Please don’t take too much of their time; be respectful since many people seek their advice. A little charm and humility can go a long way in neepery. Be sure to thank them in the acknowledgments of your breakout novel.
If you follow my six tips for writing authentic medical scenes, take the time to perfect your craft, research, and consult with real healthcare heroes, you can create genuine medical drama – without spending years in med school. Write on!
Dr. Shira Shiloah is the author of the international bestseller Emergence, a romantic medical thriller that explores what happens when a sociopath holds a scalpel to anesthetized patients. She received her medical degree from the University of Tennessee and completed her Anesthesiology residency at Northwestern University. Learn more at www.ShiraShiloahMD.com and connect on Facebook and Twitter via @ShiraShiloahMd.
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