Today I’m partaking in a mini blog series with Juliana L. Brandt and Lauren Spieller—writing pain in fiction. Together we've created the Pain Lexicon, which provides a sort of thesaurus for strong words to denote pain. (Because sometimes “that hurts” and “this was painful” just don’t cut it.)
It’s crucial to give painful moments in a book, whether physically or emotionally charged, solid descriptions to relay them to readers. While we certainly don’t want readers’ eyes to start bleeding as they peruse a story, we do want readers to feel something. We’ve all read those books that make us hurt inside, and it’s those books that we dedicate our time and devotion to.
When it comes to pain, I really want to get the sensations across—I want to describe exactly what it feels like internally and externally, and I want to hit familiar cues with the reader. If they’ve felt similar pain, I want them to think Yes, I remember that. If they haven’t, I want them to think they have. At the same time, I want to steer clear of clichés.
Let’s start with physical pain; I’ll make the physical the main focus of my “scene.” People are always being stabbed in books, right? Let’s make that the starting point:
He took the steak knife and stabbed me in the shoulder.
Ouch. Those are serrated, too.
Now, using the Pain Lexicon as a help-meet, I’m going to add some detail:
He took the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn.
Now I’ll extend the scene a little and drive to up the “pain stakes,” again leaning on the Pain Lexicon for support:
Paul slammed into me from the side. My feet skidded over the wet tiles and we crashed into the table and fell into a tangled heap on the floor. He took the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn. The thin blade bent back and forth in my muscle, ripping and clawing as he yanked it free. I screamed, feeling tendons tear like the wet cords binding a roast. My own blood bit me like acid, but I couldn’t wrench myself free.
Finally, though this is a passage describing physical pain, I want to throw in some emotional pain too, since pain is never entirely one-sided. Since this isn’t attached to any existing story, I can just make it up:
Paul stepped into the light, revealing himself. I had only a moment to register his face before he slammed into me from the side. My feet skid over the wet tiles and we crashed into the table, falling into a tangled heap on the floor.
Air wheezed from my lungs. My head banged against the table leg. The jolt gave me a moment of clarity.
Not Paul. Anyone but Paul.
The first tear didn’t have a chance to slip over the corner of my eye. He hefted the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn. The thin blade bent back and forth in my muscle, ripping and clawing as he yanked it free. I screamed, feeling tendons tear like the wet cords binding a roast. The tip of that blade pierced my very center, a venomous tongue licking away the final grains of hope residing there.
My own blood bit me like acid, but I couldn’t wrench myself free. Though he held the bloody blade over me, I couldn’t connect his hand to the handle. My disjointed thoughts throbbed in time with my shoulder.
Paul. I had no one left.
Regardless of the pain emphasis, both pains should be present. A man fighting for his life should feel something emotional—desperation, hatred, fear. A woman nursing a broken heart will feel something physical—pressure, soreness, rawness. Emphasizing both in a pain-filled scene will help readers emphasize with the characters and their situation, and help the moment come alive.
A few other tips:
- Find someone who has had a similar injury to what you’re trying to write and interview them (I did this once when my protagonist broke his collar bone).
- Jot down what thoughts might go through the character’s head when he is in pain. You don’t have to voice all of them in text, but it will give you a good vantage point to what he’s experiencing.
- Don’t forget pain. If you’re character gets beaten up in chapter three, she’ll still be feeling it in chapter four. You don’t have to dwell on it, but most pain worth writing about is not fleeting.
- Feel free to throw in metaphors. Sometimes the best way to relate a sensation is through comparison.
I also recommend checking out The Emotion Thesaurus—it’s a great reference book for emotional pain.
For more on the Pain Lexicon, check out Juliana's Show vs. Tell: The Pain Lexicon and Lauren's post The Pain Lexicon: Let's Make It Hurt.
What tactics do you use to describe pain? What books or passages have you read that conveyed pain from page to person?