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How to Write Pain. Effectively.
Pain. Physical pain. It absolutely sucks. Straight up, especially if it’s something chronic that you deal with on a daily basis…but when it comes to your character’s physical pain-either acute or chronic-how do you write pain? More importantly, how do you accurately convey what your characters are experiencing at the given moment of said pain? Our goals as writers are to immerse our readers into the lives of our characters to the point where they can feel and imagine what they’re going through. I want to walk you through how to effectively write the physical pain of your characters in a way that rips your reader’s hearts out and makes them beg for it to be over with.
Pain isn’t just in the body
Chronic pain is especially tormenting.
How the Body Experiences Pain
Secondly but no less importantly; pain is subjective. Every person feels the exact same injury differently. Tolerance to pain, physical strength, health, body type, and other factors are a determining factor in how a person experiences pain. A weak minded person can feel an injury in a way they would describe as a level 10/10 on a pain scale. When really it’s probably more like a 6/10. Most of it is a mental game. Like I’ve said, so bear that in mind when writing your specific characters. If you have a mentally strong character and they get hurt-they’d most likely have a better tolerance for pain and therefore able to more adequately handle more severe injuries. Versus, for example, another character who’s mental strength is that of a kitchen mouse may not be able to handle something major. Those characters will lose their heads.
Analyzing and knowing your characters is crucial to determine where they fall on this spectrum.
Now, what does pain feel like, you ask? Elaine Scarry talked about how pain was inexplicably difficult to explain. “Not only is physical pain enormously difficult to describe in words-” she says. “-it also actively destroys language, reducing sufferers in the most extreme instance to an inarticulate state of cries and moans.” And Virginia Wolf once noted, “language runs dry” when it comes to describing pain to someone else. Which, isn’t good news for me, the person trying to describe to you exactly how to write and convey it to an audience. Words like throbbing, stabbing, burning, etc, are useless because there’s a disconnect between the character experiencing the pain and the person reading about it.
The challenge is bringing these things together so that the reader can be immersed to the point where they can practically feel the pain themselves. Well, how do you do that? If it’s nearly impossible to find the words to accurately depict pain, yet you are required to write something that’ll engage your readers well…what do you do
How to accurately describe pain-when pain is indescribable
My personal take on this phenomenon is actually quite simple. You don’t need to go get hit by a bus and live the rest of your life in agony to be a good writer of pain. We’re all connected as human beings. We all practically go through similar things, give or take the extremes. Not everyone is assaulted and not everyone becomes a rock star, but we’ve all experienced what it’s like to fall and scrape our knee. Perhaps broken a bone or accidentally stubbed our toes on that dang coffee table. Therefore, if we’ve all experienced pain in some (and often multiple times in a lifetime) point in our lives, why do we struggle so much to share this experience in the written word? I think because most writers write pain in the sense of a descriptive word like adjectives and verbs. “It burns, it throbs. Her face was stung with heat from the slap”. Writers use descriptive words to convey it like “throbbing, burning, stinging” type words. Which isn’t wrong per-say, but you’re going to have that disconnection with your audience and herein lies the problem.
Your goal is to describe the pain-that’s a given. Do that, and do it descriptively. Similarly, you should be concentrating your energy on connecting the pain to something more. Remember when we talked about how pain isn’t just in the body? Therefore, in my opinion, this is where your pain-telling skills are really going to shine.
“Connecting the pain to a strong emotional response in your character is key to convincingly express pain.”
Does this pain have a specific place in your story? Like any other element of story-it has to be relevant to it or else it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Is this pain preventing your character from achieving their goal? Can it become such an obstacle that they believe it will stop them dead in their tracks? How is the pain so debilitating that they may not be able to go on and stop the big-baddy from destroying the world? Creating pain has to add something to the story!
In “The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green, Hazel’s and Gus’s pain from having cancer is at the center of the story, but it isn’t really about their pain, is it? Furthermore, it has a purpose to be there! It’s integrated into the plot. Not just floating there because Green was being lazy and needed something to drive the plot forward because the middle was slow. No. It was put there for a reason. Then, once you’ve found its purpose-tie in a strong emotional response to it. Connecting the pain to a strong emotional response in your character is key to convincingly express that pain. Consider how ashamed you’d think your character may feel if their pain is the sole reason they’re unable to complete a very important task? What if that pain slowed them down and someone they loved died because they arrived too late due to that pain? Contemplate how would they feel if they woke up one day having to face the fact that perhaps they’d die a painful, horrible death? Or even worse, be living with chronic pain for the rest of their lives?
“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” John Green-The Fault in Our Stars
One of the reasons why “The Fault In Our Stars” worked so well was because it wasn’t purely about the physical pain of cancer. Cancer and the many forms it takes doesn’t solely affect only the person who has cancer; but those around them as well. The psychological toll that the pain is causing is more important than how the pain physically feels. Maybe every reader doesn’t know how it feels to have cancer, but they do know how it feels to fail at something important. Being helpless to save someone you love. Having that loved one taken from you. Tie the two together, and you’ll be golden. Your readers will be heartbroken, and that is your job. Readers don’t want to be comfortable, they want to be shook awake.
So, here’s what we’ve Learned About How to Write Pain
- The pain doesn’t JUST reside in the body. The brain and the mind suffer just as much (if not more) than the body does.
- Painful experiences in general is a difficult concept to describe in words. Use what you know people can relate to in order to convey the way pain feels.
- Find a meaningful purpose for the pain to be in your story. Don’t just throw in a knife wound because your plot is lacking excitement. It’s a cheap trick and your readers will know what you’re doing. SO JUST DON’T DO IT OR I’LL FIND YOU.
- Link the relevant pain with strong and negative emotions. Show how that pain is spreading out into the lives of your characters and making everything worse for them. You gave the pain a purpose-so now make it work.
The ultimate goal when writing physical pain: To make your readers feel it too.
Great!! Sincerely hope this helped you guys. Never thought of pain in my story at all before writing this blog, but after thinking about it and developing this concept I really feel like it can help writers out there. Living with multiple chronic issues has given me a unique perspective on this topic. Feels like I am the perfect writer for this blog specificity. Leave a comment down below about what you think pain can do for your stories and how you like to convey it to your readers. Thanks so much for stopping by! Please feel free to check out my other blogs in my other categories and my YA book reviews! See ya on the next one! ^_^