What We Talk About When We Talk About Pain

I’ve heard it said many times it’s much easier to make your audience cry than laugh.

I’ll add to that that it’s easier to make your reader identify with falling in love than say, having your arm ripped off.

When we write we appeal to common experiences to allow our readers to fill in the blanks. The nervous tingling of your spine when you make eye contact with that guy/gal, the lingering burning sensation on your skin after you “accidentally” brush hands. These are all things we can allude to without going into detail. They know the drill.

If, though, we’re talking about having your spine ripped out or a literal burning of the epidermis we tend to fall back on stock phrases. How many times have you read about “searing pain” or “explosions of pain?” It’s like we can’t even write about pain without using the word itself.

Even better is when the tortured character loses consciousness, the end-all writer’s escape. C’mon? Really?

I don’t have the answers about how to write pain effectively. I can say my approach is to read. A lot. And I pay attention when someone has written something distinctive enough to make me writhe a bit.


There’s a good word.

9 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Pain

  1. I actually had to write a painful scene recently, in first person no less. I focused on the emotional response. It may just be the fact that I have a very high threshold for pain, but the pain in any injury I've had is never as significant as the worry of permanent consequences. For instance, when I shattered my two front teeth, I wasn't thinking about the pain. I was thinking about the fact that I wouldn't have teeth.

    On another note, I always find it strange when a MC gets shot or stabbed in a fight scene and is still throwing down like nothing happened. I just need a little of this:

    “Whoa! Okay, everyone, Time Out. Let's all just sit down and chill for a minute. I need to call my mom.”

  2. Oh, boy, do I worry about this one! Especially in the ms I'm currently querying, where it's psychologically induced pain with no actual physical cause. o_O

    I probably tend toward metaphor in such cases. No idea whether it's a good or bad thing, or whether I pull it off.

    Writhe is a very good word.

  3. Oh my God, this is SO HARD. I find that it's difficult to write about any physical sensations without using stock phrases.

    It's really tempting to just give up and use the short of hand, since the reader will understand what you mean, at least on a literal level. But I think we need to work hard to talk about it in unique terms, so that the reader really understands it in a visceral way.

  4. For years I had pain so dreadful I thought I might die from it. All the medical professionals I saw about the pain wanted a description. So I'd say, “It feels as though something with sharp teeth is ripping into my belly, eating me alive.” or, “It feels as though someone peeled back my skin, dumped boiling oil into my guts, pulled the skin back in place and pounded on it with a steel pipe.” These descriptions were met with blank looks and they'd ask, “Is it searing, stabbing, burning..” etc. No imagination whatsoever. Maybe we've been programmed by the medical profession to only describe pain in these terms. Ya think?

  5. The unconscious thing is definitely overused in books and movies. You're right though, it's difficult to explain pain other than saying “pain.” I also give credit to any authors who can describe things uniquely and not rely on cliches. Or at least not using the same phrases over and over to describe it.

    I've busted on Twilight a lot, but one description from New Moon worked – when Bella missed Edward when he took off, she described it as a hole in her that felt so real she literally wrapped her arms around herself. That was a good visual and literal example of what heartache can feel like.

  6. Interesting point.
    I remember hearing about the inadequacy of descriptions for pain by a fellow who had survived a stabbing. He said “stabbing pains” felt nothing like being stabbed – the actual incident felt more like he'd been whacked with a baseball bat.
    Thinking about it, in my own work I tend to focus on the person's thoughts following an injury – the panic that they may not reach help in time, the decision to keep calm and halt the bleeding and so on, rather than try to describe the throbbing, aching, gushing mess.

  7. Thanks everyone! It's good to know that other writers struggle with this as well. I find writing pain to be one of the most challenging aspects of any ms I've approached. Like Derrick mentions, everyone has different levels of pain, so that factors in too… and MC's who have Frankenstein levels of pain tolerance are too unbelievable, IMO.

  8. I know this response is ridonculously late, but I'm catching up on my blog readings lol.

    So, writing pain. The second chapter of my current MS actually has a torture scene in it, and no, I didn't go the lose-consciousness route. So far I haven't been told by any betas that it was hard to believe or unrealistic, most of the reactions I've gotten have been flat out disgust, uneasiness and squirming, but they still want to read the next chapter! Which I suppose is a good thing.

    When I write pain, if it's something I've experienced and I know a vast majority of my readers may have as well, like, say, stubbing your toe or closing your finger in a drawer or door, then you can allude and use vaguer descriptions because their mind can fill in the blanks.

    The amazing thing about writing pain that you may not have experienced before, or your readers may not have, (or the ones where you haven't but your readers HAVE, for example I've never broken a bone before) is that the same logic generally applies. For example having a portion of your body on fire, being stabbed, etc, we get so hung up on trying to find the right words to convince the reader that it's real, that it makes sense, that we forget, their imagination is STILL going to take charge here. Same as we wouldn't bother to go into immense detail for a mundane toe-stub, the same could be said for something more sinister. Some of the scariest horror movies for me aren't the ones with intense gore, but the ones that are suspenseful, that leave you guessing, you can see the shadows but not the actions. To me, writing pain is no different.

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