© 2020 Arabella K. Federico All Rights Reserved

How to Write Pain. Effectively.

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

     The first thing about how to write pain effectively is that it isn’t all in the body-even when it is. We feel pain where it centrally located, yes. It hurts, yes. But, there’s a major psychological component to pain-and this very thing is what’s going to hook your readers the most. Nobody wants to read: “Her leg hurt so bad from the knife wound.”. Your audience would rather be reading: “Her leg throbbed and burned so much from the knife wound that it made her dizzy, her mind spinning as shame flashed her cheeks as red as cherries. How could she have been hit so easily? What will happen to her now, now that her leg is maimed and useless?” See the difference?
   Experiencing pain can be associated with many different emotions. Anger, shame, embarrassment, self-pity, sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, hopelessness…and as you can see, they’re all pretty negative emotions. 

Chronic pain is especially tormenting.

 Try imagining if you will, waking up every morning in so much pain you can barely put your own socks on your feet. See in your mind trying to bend down, and feeling the ache in your spine as you struggle to stretch far enough to reach your feet and all the self-pity, anger, and helplessness you feel in that one moment. Worse yet- think about if you’re a younger person experiencing this. How could YOUR LIFE be reduced to this pitiful moment? At least if you were some old man or woman you can tell yourself you had many many years without this-that you were able to live your life at least. Can you only imagine how that would feel? 
   In moments such as these, it becomes way less about the pain, and more about how this pain has affected your life. Make it about that when you are writing your characters pain. Remember it’s important that you understand how pain affects the mind just as much (if not more) than the body. 

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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! ^_^

© copyright 2020 Arabella K. Federico All Rights Reserved

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This Post Has 31 Comments

  1. evita

    I love it! Thanks so much for sharing!. I am also a fellow writer in hopes of getting a book out soon. I am working on a psychological thriller at the moment. I am still working on a title though. Perhaps it can be called “WithDrama”.

    1. Arabella K. Federico

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And you should! Creating a title is a big choice, so don’t rush the process! You’ll find the perfect one, I just know it. 🙂

  2. April McGowan

    I so agree. I wrote one book about blindness and the kids that character went they’d matched the loss I feel with chronic illness. It was a loss the able could identify with because people consider and fear blindness more than they expect illness (although 50% of us or our loved ones will suffer from a chronic condition… It worked well. And it gave me license to speak about another issue, PTSD (another condition I’m familiar with) in my next book.
    I’ve never read your blog before, I’m glad a friend shared it with me! Keep writing!

    1. arabella

      Thank you so much for sharing April! And you’re absolutely right! It’s hard for people to imagine how blindness would actually affect their lives-but describing those emotional components are what can get that audience to relate to the illness-they just don’t quite realize that in the thick of the reading. I’m so glad your friend shared it!! This blog post going viral truly has humbled my heart so much! I just started it up, and will be writing and posting much more so please come back! Thanks again for the great comment!

  3. Eric

    Most people don’t realize that most of the nerves are in the skin. I work wood. I get cut all the time. It stings and blood goes everywhere. Try not to bleed on the wood and go find a bandage. No big deal. It is when I do not feel the pain that I become concerned. I am below the nerves in the skin. I need to take a closer look and see how bad it is. In a deep wound you will feel the thud of impact and a dull ache. The effected body part may not work properly. You may be bleeding badly, but you don’t notice if you are to busy doing something else. You are right, much of it is in your head. If you can get it out, most pain is bearable.

  4. Hajar

    Wow! I absolutely love this post! It was so helpful!
    Eeeek! I’m soo excited! I’m a wannabe/aspiring young author trying to find time in the day to write 😝. I love it! Keep up the great work 👍

    1. arabella

      Awww I’m so glad you liked it!!! Keep going on your writing!! You will get there! Just keep your mind on the positivity and you’ll get there. 🙂

  5. Kat magellen

    This is a good and thoughtful article but I would take issue with a weakminded erson describing a pain as 10/10whereas a “strongminded” one would describe it as 6/10 – especially dissapointing in that you had just outlined very well how subjective it is and how our socio- bio-psycho- cultural milieu is what alters our perceptions to a great degree-NOT how worthy we are

    1. arabella

      Well, I appreciate your input for sure. I’m not necessarily saying that weak-will individuals, therefore, have a weak pain tolerance or feel more pain. We’re talking about fictional characters here, not actual people. So my point was to look at each individual character and evaluate their mental situation-and given that-apply their response to pain accordingly. Along with the other factors, I outlined. Each writer has got to asses their characters as individuals and use those characteristics to determine how they respond to pain. I can’t do that for them. All I can do is outline how I go about this process. It’s not meant to make anyone feel bad for how they personally experience pain. There are many different factors that play into that, as you saw. IRL is even more complicated lol. Aside from that, I’m so glad you liked the blog. Please come back and read the others! Look forward to discussing writing more!!

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  9. Donald Knowlton

    I don’t have to imagine pain. This is my experience and not a sorry story. I’m in good shape now. My ankle was crushed in an motorcycle accident in 1975 and I’ve experienced pain ever since. Through the years. the pain has been variable, Sometimes I dreaded standing up as it would feel like an explosion in my head. other times it throbbed as I walked I had to limp about 95% of the time. The interesting part is when something else is hurt. Yes I give out a loud ouch, but after a minute I can ignore it. After a knee replacement I was on opioids for only 24hrs. I do take ibuprophen every day or the artheritis flares up in my finger and toes, and that is really annoying. So for me pain has gone from an explosion in the head to annoying. My final thought. That accident that took out my ankle, I cant remember the pain I experienced. The mind protects and blocks out that memory.

  10. mama bear

    Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay.

    I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

    1. arabella

      I do! @ArabellaKFed

  11. judionline

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  12. EmeryNGossin

    Firstly I wish to say terrific blog! I had a simple question which I’d like to ask unless you mind. I had been interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your ideas prior to writing. I’ve had a tricky time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts on the market. I really do enjoy writing but it really just seems like the 1st ten to fifteen minutes are lost just considering where to start. Any suggestions or tips? Cheers!

    1. arabella

      I typically get an itch to write something early on before I actually go to write. Whatever inspires you, do that, be immersed in that. I always like to let that itch build into excitement and then I decide to actually begin to write. I find that the best way. Hope this helps!

  13. Carolyn Penuel

    How To Write Pain has helped me remember some pain of my own. I am a writing Granny writing events of my past for my grandchildren. Some events are humorous, sad and painful. Life is more than a happy ending. It’s a joy or tragedy and it like pain is formed from the mind’s point of view. I loved your informative article and hope to glean from your experiences in the future.

    1. arabella

      I couldn’t agree more, Carolyn. Life is all those things. I’m glad your writing for your grandchildren! What a lovely audience to have. Keep writing, it’s such a blessing to me and even though nobody has read my novel and just a few read my blog, it keeps me centered and motivated and brings me joy. Age is just a number with these things. <3

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