How To Accurately Write About Your Character’s Pain

The best thing about this online world of ours is you never know who you are going to meet. I don’t know about you, but one of the areas I struggle with is writing a character’s pain in a way that is raw, realistic…but not just “one-note.” So when I crossed paths with a paramedic-turned-writer, I got a little excited. And when she said she’d share her brain with us about the experience of pain, and how to write it authentically, I got A LOT excited. Read on, and make sure to visit Aunt Scripty’s links at the end. Her blog is full of more great medical info for writers.

Writing About Pain (Without Putting your Readers in Agony)

Pain is a fundamental part of the human experience, which means that it’s a fundamental part of storytelling. It’s the root of some of our best metaphors, our most elegant writing. Characters in fiction suffer, because their suffering mirrors our own.

In good writing, physical suffering often mirrors emotional suffering. It heightens drama, raises the stakes, adds yet another hurdle for our hero to jump before they reach their glorious climax.

So why can reading about pain be so boring?

Consider the following (made-up) example:

The pain shot up her arm like fire. She cringed. It exploded in her head with a blinding whiteness. It made her dizzy. It made her reel. The pain was like needles that had been dipped in alcohol had been jammed through her skin, like her arm had been replaced with ice and electricity wired straight into her spine.

For your characters, at its worst the pain can be all-consuming.  For your readers, though, it can become a grind. Let’s be honest, you gave up reading that paragraph by the third sentence.

In another story, a character breaks his ribs in one scene, then has, uhhh, intimate moments with his Special Someone in the next. Where did the agony go‽

There’s a fine line to walk between forgetting your character’s pain, elucidating it, and over-describing it.

So I’m here today to give you a pain scale to work with, and provide some pointers on how to keep in mind a character’s injuries without turning off your readers.

How Much Does It Hurt? A Pain Scale for Writers

Minor/Mild: This is pain that your character notices but doesn’t distract them. Consider words like pinch, sting, smart, stiffness.

Moderate: This is pain that distracts your character but doesn’t truly stop them. Consider words like ache, throb, distress, flare.

Severe: This is pain your character can’t ignore. It will stop them from doing much of anything. Consider words like agony, anguish, suffering, throes, torment, stabbing.

Obliterating: This is the kind of pain that prohibits anything else except being in pain (and doing anything to alleviate it). Consider words like ripping, tearing, writhing.

Metaphors, of course, are going to play somewhere on this spectrum, but I would suggest picking one level of pain and targeting it. For instance, don’t  mix stinging with searing when finding a metaphor to build.

How Often Should We Remind Readers of a Character’s Pain?

Most pain that matters in fiction isn’t a one-and-done kind of a deal. A gunshot wound should burn and itch and ache as it heals. A broken bone should send a jarring blast of lightning into the brain if that bone is jostled or hit.

Injuries need to have consequences. Otherwise, what’s the point?

There are three main ways to remind a reader of your character’s suffering: show them suffering, show them working around their suffering, and a third, more advanced, technique that I’ll mention in a moment.

If you want to show their pain, the easiest way is to tell: “her shoulder ached”; “she rubbed her aching shoulder”; “she rolled her shoulder subconsciously, trying to work out the aching stiffness” all convey what we want.

For frequency, try to limit those mentions to once per scene at the most, and perhaps as rarely as once per chapter.

However, we can choose something closer to the show route, by watching the character work around their injuries: “she opened the door awkwardly with her left hand to avoid the burn on her right”; “she led each step on the staircase with her good leg”; “Martin fiddled with his sling irritably”. That can be a little more frequent. It’s a reminder, but it’s also a small challenge that they’re solving before your very eyes. Huzzah!

One Final Technique: The Transmission of Agony

My best friend is a paramedic. She’s also had spinal fusion, has multiple slipped discs, and takes a boatload of pain medication. And yet I can see how much pain she’s in when we work together by the way she walks, talks, and carries herself.

Her pain isn’t constant. It changes. It ebbs and flows like the tide. It can be debilitating in one minute, bearable the next. So, too, can the agony of your characters:

“The agony had faded to a dull throb.”

“The pain in my shoulder ramped up the from stiffness all the way to searing, blinding agony faster than I could blink.” 

And, just when the pain was at its worst, it dissipated, like fog off some terrible lake.”

Go forth. Inflict suffering and woe upon your characters!

If I can offer one more piece of wisdom, it’s this: research the injury inflicted upon your character. At the very least, try to get a grasp on what their recovery might look like. It will add a level of realism to your writing that you simply can’t fake without it, and remind you that they should stay injured beyond the length of a scene.

Thank you for your time and your attention.

xoxo, Aunt Scripty

Aunt Scripty is a veteran paramedic and author of the ScriptMedic blog at scriptmedicblog.com . In just three short months, her blog has attracted several thousand followers and accidentally started a writing advice blog revolution on Tumblr.

She lives in an undisclosed location with her beautiful wife and imaginary pibble, Steve, and can be found @scriptmedic on Twitter. If you’re not careful, she’ll sneak up on you in a dark alleyway and give you a free ebook.

Have a question about PAIN? Now’s your chance to get some serious A+ feedback. Comment below.

Image 1: BrookLorin @pixabay
Image 2: LeoNeoBoy @ Pixabay

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

This entry was posted in Conflict, Description, Emotion, Empathy, Fear, Guest Post, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to How To Accurately Write About Your Character’s Pain

  1. KittenLove123 says:

    My character has a knife slash across her face. She also lives on the streets after fleeing the hospital.
    Expert your article helped me with:
    The voices blurred together, mixing into a haze through the pain as they got her to the hospital. She had gotten the impression that a simple cut would have less medical needs. Looking back on it, Ellen thought she was overwhelmed by it all. She was in searing pain, the force of it ripping through her mind like a bomb, after all.

  2. Pingback: Writing About Pain Part 2: External Signs - digital beauties

  3. Gail Shepherd says:

    So helpful and timely! Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Writing About Pain Part 2: External Signs – ScriptMedic

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  6. Janice Hampton says:

    I love this article!! I have a question. I have an alpha male hero who is an amputee. He’s been through therapy and it’s been about four years since he lost his leg. My question involves phantom pain that I’ve read a lot about with amputees. How bad does this kind of pain get in relation to your Mild, Moderate or Severe pain? I have the scene where when he wakes up and it’s throbbing and it’s swollen so he can’t put on his prothesis. I read this in another book. Is that accurate? I have him taking some pain meds. How long does it take before the pain goes away approximately? I mention that he’s been using accpuncture for the pain as well with some success. Is this even accurate??

    Thanks,
    Janice

    • Aunt Scripty says:

      Hey Janice! Thanks for your question!

      Phantom pain comes from a number of different causes, including damage or pressure on a nerve, especially if scar tissue is putting pressure on it.

      While I’m certainly not a pain management specialist, and nothing here is to be considered medical advice — my disclaimer is here ( http://www.scriptmedicblog.com/disclaimer ) — I have a couple of great resources to send you.

      The first is an article from the Amputee Coalition, talking about pain and possible treatments, here: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/limb-loss-resource-center/resources-for-pain-management/managing-phantom-pain/

      WebMD has a fairly decent article here: http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/phantom-limb-pain#1-4

      And Mayo Clinic, my personal favorite resource on the whole wide Webiverse, has a great article here: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/phantom-pain/basics/treatment/con-20023268

      It seems, from reading these sources, that a combination of medical therapy (including opioids like Vicodin / hydrocodone or Percocet / oxycodone, anticonvulsants such as Neurontin / gabapentin or Lyrica / pregabalin, or tricyclic antidepressants including amitryptaline or tramadol) and non-medical therapy (such as mirror box, applied heat, massage, and, yes, accupuncture etc of the affected leg).

      You might think seizure medication or antidepressants are a strange thing to give for phantom limb pain, but they interrupt the way neuropathic pain signals are transmitted and received in the brain. Science: It’s Kinda Neat Sometimes, Huh? (TM).

      There’s a GREAT TED talk that, among other things, touches on mirror box therapy here: http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind?language=en

      (It helps that that guy has one of the best accents I’ve ever heard in my whole life, by the way, and the talk is fascinating even before dealing with this.)

      As to how bad the pain gets, I think that’s up to you to decide, though I’ve heard it *can* be severe; however, he’s been dealing with this for four years now.

      Swelling of the stump is certainly possible. In fact, after an amputation, it takes weeks for the swelling to go down enough to even fit an amputee for a prosthesis! This far along it may be irritated skin, or your character may have developed an infection in the site. But just like any area, irritation breeds swelling, itching, and pain.

      I hope this was useful! I’d say you’re already headed down the right track, and I would personally like to say I would LOVE to see more amputee heroes in fiction!

      Best of luck with your tale.

      xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  7. Elisabeth says:

    Excellent post. Thank you Angela for sharing. Like you books, too.

  8. Pingback: Scripty’s Guest Posts: Writing About Pain – ScriptMedic

  9. This is wonderful information! I find when I write about pain that I fall into the problem of trying to over share the pain of my character. When I go back to read it, I stop reading after the first two sentences (like in the example here). Thank you for sharing this! I appreciate the different levels of pain and the descriptive words to help illustrate them.

    Cheers,
    Jen

    • Aunt Scripty says:

      Hi Jennifer! I’m so glad you found it helpful! I know in my own writing I’ve tended toward over-emphasizing pain, especially too early in the story.

      One thing I didn’t get a chance to discuss is the idea of ramping up the pain — backing off on descriptions early so that you can maximize them later and not have it be repetitive. It’s the difference between a low-level ache in the shoulder when your character gets out of bed and the ripping, tearing agony when they tear their rotator cuff at the worst possible moment in the story. It’s not always appropriate, but in general, ramping up your character’s pain to mirror scene tension can be an excellent tool if done well.

      Good luck with your stories!!

      xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  10. Very informative particle. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Thank you for addressing this problem! It’s very useful information.

  12. Aunt Scripty says:

    Hey Angela! I just wanted to say thanks so much for having me on the blog, and I hope this post has been helpful for your readers. It’s great to appear on such a fantastic blog!

    xoxo, Aunt Scripty

  13. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    Hi Angela: Thank you so much for Posting and for sharing Aunt Scripty’s Post and website. I’ve signed up for her Newsletter and look forward to using the Resources that she offers.

  14. Sheri Levy says:

    Wonderful information and ideas.

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