Not long ago I wrote a short story about a mathematics graduate student on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The young student is innocent and working to finish a difficult mathematical derivation under a tight deadline. In desperation, he decides to pay an uninvited visit to the house of an older mentor mathematician who he reveres. Instead of sitting down for serious discourse in mathematics, the mentor introduces the student to a hallucinogenic drug causing the student to endure a night of paranoia and grotesque hallucinations animated by mathematical symbols and anxiety. The student awakes the next day confused and disillusioned.

I'm not satisfied with what I wrote. In working on the story I realized that I have never taken and do not intend to take any hallucinogenic drugs and I have no comparable experiences in my own life to draw upon.

What would you recommend for describing drug induced fear, paranoia, hallucinations and anxiety in a compelling way? What are some good literary techniques for exploring a blurred boundary between reality and dream, lucidity and insanity? Can you suggest any reading material to help me re-approach this project?

Thank you!

  • 4
    Would it be bad form to suggest taking drugs and experiencing it first hand? =P Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 2:14
  • Yes, Ralph, it would. :) Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:00
  • It would help me to answer if you explained exactly which hallucinogen your character was given Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 19:34

6 Answers 6


1) Read drug literature, if you get your head right around Naked Lunch, the Illuminatus Trilogy and some of Philip K. Dick's wackier work they should tell you more or less everything you need to know. Burroughs is particularly useful because he wrote even though he was out of his head on drugs, not because he was out of his head on drugs.

The Illuminatus Trilogy is basically a compendium of the paranoid thoughts of every conspiracy loon that could be bothered to send letters on the subject of Civil Liberties to Playboy Magazine in the mid to late 60s (the book was written by the two editors in charge of that desk at Playboy and basically asks "what if all of this was true?"). One of the authors of the trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson, also wrote a book called Prometheus Rising which I believe depicts the internal landscape of someone whose done a lot of experimentation with hallucinogenics and pot and was exposed to much of the counter culture thinking of the 60s and 70s... he may have intended it to be the fanfare of a new era in human evolution but that doesn't do much to challenge my beliefs I suppose.

Philip K. Dick famously proclaimed both that he wrote his novels after taking large amounts of amphetamines and, later, that doctors had told him that his liver had processed the amphetamines before they had reached his brain (I'm personally unsure as to the medical viability of that prognosis but hey ho). Whatever the truth his work is fuelled by paranoia and filled with symbols of the broken or shattered sense of identity that altered states of consciousness produce.

2) The key to the most effective reality breakdown scenes is that they start out seeming realistically viable and slowly descend into madness. The path downwards is usually marked out with a strong set of symbols. As an author it is your job to convey a twisted worldview propped up by surreal dream logic and, I would argue, that the only way to communicate such a state of being to a rational audience is to be sober, disciplined and have everything meticulously planned. Of course the authors I mentioned in 1. often didn't but then the incoherence they sometimes displayed is testament to the fact that they were writing from within the fugue state and were trying to communicate about things they had discovered while within that state. You are trying to communicate the experiences of a third party experiencing that mental state. These two things are not the same; I believe what you are trying to do requires practiced application of technique.

3) If you want a laundry list of things to lean on then you might want to include:

  • Bizarrely prosaic but nevertheless ominous and eerie symbolic repetition: follow the white rabbit Neo.
  • Writing scenes out of sequence or introducing time loops: it's Groundhog day, again/Zed's dead baby
  • Having characters snap from rational conversation into bluntly violent or sexual suggestion: Long live the new flesh.
  • Suggest that reality is just a layer on top of something larger and more mysterious: The owls are not what they seem.

The most effective and creepy piece of writing I ever read was a story by an author who is probably completely unknown called Nicholas Antosca, a short story you won't be able to find anywhere called "Movies and Kids". In the story a young man pays a visit to his boss's house in a pleasant suburb of an unnamed American town. At the beginning of the story the narrator believes that there are kids running and playing in the hedgerows of these suburban houses although he cannot see them. When he goes into the house he is introduced to the boss's wife who, after exchanging a couple of pleasantries asks him if he likes movies. The narrator doesn't understand the question and suspecting it's some sort of innuendo tries to politely tell her he doesn't have much time for them. When his boss comes in and the two of them start pressuring him into committing to whether he likes movies or not he flees. Running through the streets of the suburb he believes he is being followed by the hidden children, laughing and playing, stalking through the hedges.

Nothing actually happens in the story but the author did a brilliant job of communicating paranoia and fear without ever resorting to traditional modes. Drugs were not mentioned but the technique of providing this kind of triple subtext, where there's what the audience knows, what the narrator knows and some possibility of underlying mystery is key to creating the atmosphere you're chasing.


Reading up on the effects of various Pyschoactive drugs might help. Below is a link that could be really helpful, there are "trip reports" for every drug imaginable. http://www.erowid.org/experiences/


You may benefit from talking to ex-addicts, since ex-addicts are more likely to give an unvarnished truth with regards to their drug taking (if, of course, they're willing to be open to a stranger).

I disagree with Indoril Nerevar's answer about not speaking to addicted people. Interviewing addicted people does provide its own insights: how people exaggerate and possibly even lie regarding their own drug usage, its effects on their lives, and those around them. Their mannerisms and body language can also help give you ideas regarding behaviour. You'd also be surprised at how open some people can be about their drug usage, how much they justify it, enjoy it even, or how many are open and aware of their present situation.

You should also talk with normal people who have experienced or used drugs (there are plenty of those, and I've no doubt you may even know one or two people who have experimented). They don't need to be addicts to have experienced any of what you describe. If you don't know any, just go to any number of clubs or parties where there are likely to be people taking drugs, and observe their behaviour. You may even be able to strike up a conversation with some people, too.

In terms of reading material, Sadie Plant wrote a fairly good book entitled "Writing on Drugs", which explored both writers taking drugs and writing, and writers writing about drugs. You may also find the works of Hunter S. Thompson (such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and William S. Burroughs (Junky) helpful. Film is also a good avenue to explore, since this is obviously a lot more visual. Perhaps have a look on YouTube for videos of people taking drugs. Lastly, use Wikipedia as a starting point for pointing you in the right direction regarding reference material on drugs and hallucination.


First: Forget about interviewing addicted people. Due to theirs specific conditions they would lie and exaggerate. Instead, consult a clinical toxicology books. It should be an abundand resource of objective and proven information.

Second: Try a "reality shift", something like this:

Susie was wondering how had mr. Powell managed to reach a third derivative level.

"What's the rush?" the antiderivative asked. "We are just an extrapolation."

"Serve yourself," suggested mr. Powell handing over an ashtray full of fraction lines. "These ones were sieved by Erasothenes. In person."

... and so on.

  • 2
    I disagree about not interviewing addicts. Firstly - in general people dont get addicted to hallucinogens. And second, I don't think what you write has to be 100% proven facts. A little exaggeration here and there can be useful. Also not all addicts are despicable monsters who will lie to you for no reason.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 9:12
  • Almost every adict is driven by other motives than others. It is proven fact. The main motive for her/him is avoid withdrawal symptomes at all costs. So she/he would do anything to get another "dose". An addict would tell you things she/he is expecting you want to hear. You would to be a great psychologist and negotiator to get what you want. Therefore I prefer informations collected by professionals.
    – Nerevar
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 10:24
  • 1
    Many illegal drugs are not addictive. Many addicts are trying to recover, or have indeed recovered. Many others are sufficiently comfortable with their drug source not to worry about their next fix. Many people will talk honestly if there's no reason not to. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 0:50
  • @David Thornley: I agree. But how would somebody tell one case from another? (The question whether we are discussing a known or a fictious drug is still open-ended.)
    – Nerevar
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 10:45

I don't think an addict would lie. They may not remember their drug induced hallucinations.

It’s hard to tell whether you're having a hallucination or if it's real. Sometimes it's very scary. You’re talking to people and no one is there; but it is so very real to you. I have been caught on camera and watched myself. I looked very scared and was just walking and talking aimlessly to no one. But I would have a conversation just like it was real, knowing what and how that person would talk to me.

This is my experience.


You can write about what is observed from the outside. You can infer much about what may be going on inside. But what you can't do is give an accurate portrayal of what goes on inside unless you have actually experienced hallucinogens for yourself. This is probably what is making your crap detector go off when you read your own work. And if yours goes off, you may be assured your readers' will be ringing off the walls as well.

  • 1
    Then how do people write from the perspective of members of the opposite sex? Members of a different race? People who are slowly dying of blood loss? People who are older than them? People who just plain are not them? Why aren't all novels not about the experiences of the author not making their reader's crap detectors go off? I'm not trying to be hostile but I think this position needs serious examination before being accepted.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:34
  • I'm talking about technical details of feeling. Men can write women (and vice versa), but you will not see them describing, say, premenstrual emotional and physical discomfort, at least in a very detailed way. I have read very good attempts by women to write men in the first person, but even these have failed hugely in some passages. I'm thinking of Tana French's In the Woods, a police procedural/romance written from the POV of a male detective writing in the first person. The book is excellent, and French is a very talented writer. And she mostly pulls it off. But not all the time.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:43
  • Agree with @One-Monkey on this, it's simply not the case that you cannot give an accurate portrayal of something unless you've done it or experienced it. If that were true, a lot of crime novelists need to be locked up for some pretty whacked-out murders ;) You may lend your work more authenticity if it were known that it's based on personal experience, but that's about it. Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:46
  • @Craig Sefton: "You may lend your work more authenticity ..." That is precisely my point. There is a tipping point with authenticity, which if you fall below results in complete collapse of the old willing suspension of disbelief.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:50
  • 1
    @Robusto: Trying to write comments on the fly so maybe didn't exactly mean "rendered incapable of" possibly more along the lines of "will inevitably fail to". I love loads of drug inspired stuff but have never actually taken any. Most people still think some of my ideas are drug-induced, much like Ditko's art on Doctor Strange, Ditko claimed he never touched drugs either. Sometimes folks are just weird enough already ;)
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:16

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