How to Write a Drowning Scene


Part One

1. Establish how they ended up in the water

»A. There are two ways a person can end up in a body of water . You need to set the scene so people know which one this is.

I. The person has lost their vehicle. People cross bodies of water in boats or planes. For this person to be in the water, they either fell off a boat, or their boat or plane wrecked. Imagery for this includes a sudden shock of cold water landscape of nothing but water with no land in sight. If they fell off the boat, they might watch it leave without them.

II. A person swam out too far. Though too far is a subjective term, for these purposes too far can simply mean too far from help. The deep end of a un-lifeguarded swimming pool is too far for someone who can’t swim. Of course, it can also be someone swimming for fun who gets caught in a riptide at an ocean or lake. Alternately, it can be someone eager to show off who swims until they tire, forgetting they still have to swim back. Imagery for this includes land on at least one side of the body of water. Swimmers also usually have other people around even though the people might not realize they are in trouble.


»A. B. How good of a swimmer are they?

I. If a person can swim, they don’t start out by drowning. They start out treading water.

II. If a person can’t swim then they flail their arms about and try to break the surface.

C. Are they expecting help?
I. The strong swimmer hopes help will arrive in time. In fact, they’re sure help will come. This ray of hope can occupy anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph through internal dialogue.

II. The weak swimmer might not think about help consciously, but subconsciously, they do. When writing this scene, it will take up a much smaller part of the story, maybe as little as a single sentence. Or it could just be as short as the unspoken) word ‘help’ or ‘someone save me’. Note this will have to be internal dialogue, since drowning victims can’t actually talk.
Example 1:

The icy water shocks my system as I plunge beneath the surface of the ocean. My heart races and my chest tightens as the cold fist of understanding squeezes the breath out of me. I fell off the boat and am now underwater. The lit surface above mocks me. I kick my legs as fast as I can and part the water with huge strokes of my arms. I probably don’t look graceful and I don’t’ care. My chest is on fire. I need to breathe.
I explode from the water, spraying droplets everywhere. I fill my lungs with the sweet, life-giving air. The pleasure boat I fell from is close, but it’s not getting closer. I fight the panic raising up in my chest. My buddy’s Bryans’ on board, he’ll save me. I take a deep breath and swim towards the boat.


Part Two

2. Trying to stay afloat is taking its toll.

»A. At this point it doesn’t matter if they’re a strong or weak swimmer because they’re getting tired.

I. It takes more effort to move effort to move thier arms and legs. They feel heavy both because of having to move in water and because they are surrounded by wet heavy clothing. They stop swimming as hard so they can rest for a moment.

II. Without the constant movement, the victim starts to sink. They sink lower in the water, with water rushing into their nose and mouth alerting them to the danger. Through sheer survival instinct, they force their arms and legs to move and pop their head up above the water only to repeat the cycle.


»A. B. Coldness sets in.

I. Open water is always colder than the air around it. It’s also colder than 98.6, a human’s body temperature. So if you stay in water long enough the cold will set in. This makes it even harder to move your arms and legs as the human body core rushes blood away from the limbs and into the core to keep itself warm.
II. Cold water causes numbness and cramping, which makes it even harder to move.

III. A strong sleepiness settles in. As the body cools, it also gets sleepy. They limbs feel heavier now, but so do the eyelids. The victim struggles to stay afloat, moving and awake.
Example 2:
Salt water brushes against my lips and invades my nose. I let out a deep breath to blow the water out. My body fights me on this, it wants to breathe in. Once more I break though the surface, spitting out the briny water. I speed up my strokes and will my legs to kick. It wasn’t this hard a few minutes ago. I squirm, trying to get on my back, but it doesn’t work. My legs are weighted, heavy. They slow. It’s so hard to get them to move. A chill seeps into my bones and weighs me down. Even my arms grow heavy. My body screams out for rest, it aches for it, and I just ache. I have to keep kicking…move legs. MOVE!


Part Three

3. Tricks of the brain

»A. Feelings

I. Anger sets in as they realize they’re actually going to die out here. No one came to save them. No one cares and no one’s going to miss them when they’re gone. This anger gives them the strength to keep swimming. It’s one last burst of adrenaline.

II. Regrets follow anger. If only they’d done something differently, they wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe it’s a punishment for something they did and now will never have a chance to apologize for. Or maybe it was just arrogance or plain old bad luck. If only they’d done something differently. This is a great time to use that flashback you’ve been saving as a life passes before their eyes event.


»A. B. Perceptions

I. The victim needs to check in with their body, notice every thought and feeling. The frigid water, the perceptions, the questions of ‘why didn’t someone save me?’

II. As the brain struggles for oxygen, hallucinations set in. The victim could see boats, land, or even strange objects floating around them. They could think they are real, but of course, they aren’t.

Example 3:

The frigid finger of realization pokes its way through the fear and makes me realize the truth. Bryan isn’t coming back for me. I know we’ve arguing over the business, but did he really leave me to die? Or maybe he just isn’t a good enough sailor to turn the boat. It’s my boat after all. I push down on the water around me, trying to keep my mouth above the surface. It’s getting so hard. I guess my legs are still moving. I can’t even feel my toes anymore. The water snugs in around me again.

This time, when I struggle back to the surface, I see it. A boat. Oh thank god, another boat. I want to cry out to it, but dare not open my mouth. That water is too close. And it’s getting closer. The sunlit world is above me. I force my leaden arms and legs to move. My worn out limbs let me know what they think of that.
The boat is gone. I want to cry, but I don’t have the energy. Was it ever really there?


Part Four

4. Drowning takes them away.

»A. One last fight

I. They realize no one is coming to save them. The realization sinks into their soul and makes them even heavier. They’re too tried and depressed to go on.
II. As They sink, they hold their breath and try to swim to the surface. However, no matter how hard they swim, they just can’t’ make it. A ringing in their ears starts. Their chest feels like it’s on fire and about to explode. Their breath comes out in a rush, replacing the life-giving oxygen with heavy water. As they see the bubbles rise, they know they’re done for.


»A. B. They are at peace

I. With water in their lungs instead of oxygen, they are too heavy to move and their willpower is gone. All they want to do is sleep.

II. They think about the home they’ll never see again and the people they leave behind. They have odd thoughts they can’t control. They may even say something in their mind, an apology, a statement of true love, a little prayer.


III. They take one last look at the brightly lit surface above them, think about how close it is, but then sink into the depths.

Example 4:

Bryan isn’t coming. No one’s coming. My limbs are winning this fight. As hard as I will them to move they don’t. They decided to rest instead. I take a deep breath as the water closes in around me. I can’t die this way. I’ll never see Rose again. And my son…I have PTA tonight. The sunlight filtering down through the water mocks me. A slight pressure pushes on my chest from the inside. My clothes swirl uselessly round me, weighing down even further. A ringing fills my ears, but otherwise it’s quiet.

My lungs burn. I clamp my mouth shut try to kick my legs. The urge to breathe is unbearable. My chest’s going to explode. No. No…
Bubbles spew out of me, taking with them my precious air. I should want to force my legs to kick, but I don’t want to. I want to sleep. Already, the blackness clouds my vision, my thoughts. The sunlight is so beautiful down here.
And getting further away…


Author’s Bio:

“Devlin Blake is an accomplished fiction author and writing coach with over two dozen published books including both fiction and non-fiction under a variety of pen names. Devlin’s signature writing system enables author clients to write faster and produce high quality work while holding down a job and enjoying life. Using this system, Devlin was able to create four novels in under a year with more ease, richer characters and robust story lines. Devlin is a sought after coach and consultant specializing in the horror/suspense writing genre. If you would like a free copy of Devlin’s Plotting Alchemy, The Easy Way To Plan a Novel, just click the link.


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