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!
For a breakdown of possible conflict scenarios that can lead to your character experiencing pain, go here.
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.
Looking for a deep dive on pain, and how to describe minor, major, mortal, invisible injuries and more? This series on How to Write About Pain is a huge help.
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.
TIP: To describe a character’s pain, visit this descriptive database:
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.