Hurts So Good: Writing Pain

Black eye (orbicular bruise). Crop and Rotatio...

Research: it ain’t pretty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The simplest things can often be the hardest to write well. I already did a post on writing sex, but there’s another common one that trips up writers: pain.

Your characters are going to get hurt. The essence of story is conflict, and conflict generally means someone will get fucked up. Depending on your genre, it might be physical pain or emotional, but I’m going to concern myself with physical for the moment. Even if your characters suffer nothing worse than a paper cut, it’s still worth knowing how to do right because pain is universal. It crosses barriers, whether gender, geographic, cultural, or species.

But how do you write it? It’s something we’ve all experienced, unless we’re bubble people. Even then, I bet the bubble chafes occasionally. How do you take something that is fundamentally physical and translate it in a meaningful way to an imaginative intellectual medium? Fucking hard, right?

I take comfort in the fact that this is something that even established writers mess up. The missteps that I’ve read seem to fall in one of two categories:
1. The Cop-Out: the character passes out or is otherwise absent during painful events. Or the scene ends. Also known as the cut away or fade to black. It can be useful, especially if you’re trying to create a foreboding sense of horror, but it’s used too much as an escape from something either the writer didn’t want to write, or was unable to.
2. The Torture Porn: And here’s the other end of the spectrum. Every moment of pain is described in exhaustive detail.* The idea is to create sympathy for the character in pain, but instead it bores. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks, “Oh dear, another spleen’s hit the floor, how dull” when I read this shit.

So, what do you do? I’ve been giving this some thought lately**, and I think I’ve come up with something. When the pain comes along for my characters***, I combine physical cues and emotional aspects. And of these two, the emotions are more important. After all, most of my readers probably don’t know what it’s like to be locked in a basement with a guy who wants to cut you to pieces. But we all know helplessness. We all know fear. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped and desperate and willing to do anything to get out of there.

Those emotions are the way to connect with the reader. Add enough detail to make it real: the way a bruise stiffens after a while, the feeling of dried blood, the smell of sweat. But use those to illustrate the emotional aspects of the character in that situation.

The idea of pain is that we should find out what the character is made of. We should find out if, in extremity, they break or they rise.

*Sometimes erroneous detail, as well. I will say this once and once only: no one experiences brain pain. There are no pain receptors in the brain.
**One of the unforeseen problems when you write fucked-up stuff: logistics. You have to hit someone how hard to make their liver rupture?
***And it does. ‘Cause apparently I’m a bastard.

6 thoughts on “Hurts So Good: Writing Pain

  1. Good subject! I will pay more attention to pain. I am fortunate to be in a writing critique group with an eminent (my characterization, not his) neurologist and a well-practiced and probably brilliant (my characterization) ER doc. Some of my ideas about medical stuff in stories turn out to be convenient for the writer but just plain wrong. For example, knocking someone on the back of the head with the butt of a gun doesn’t cause them to pass out for a few minutes, then come back to consciousness. If they pass out from a blow to the head they may not be coming back at all.

    A few months ago I wrote a scene for Enchanted Rock Blue(s) in which the protagonist was shot with a small caliber handgun. The docs helped me craft a realistic scenario – where the bullet hit, what damage was done, how that incapacitated the character, what the paramedics would do, where the surgery would be done and how long it would take, how long would the subsequent hospital stay be, what issues would he have in recovery.

    I am fortunate to have quite a few friends who are expert in areas I am not, and I find them eager to help me make my stories as authentic as possible. Some I have asked are: doctors, birders, biologist, geologist, gun freaks, state police officer, county sheriff deputy, park police officer, justice of the peace, park superintendent.

    • For medical stuff, I have a bunch of ER doctor manuals that I check for the basic stuff (emergency treatment, the look of wounds, that sort of thing). First thing I learned: no one walks off a gunshot wound. Man, movies get that wrong.

      And never underestimate the value of pumping other people for information. Or doing it yourself. This fall I’m learning to handle swords and guns. I can see no way in which this can go wrong.

  2. After all, Kurt Vonnegut did suggest that we writers be sadists to our protagonists. A little adversity never hurt a protagonist. So I plan on being a completely unrepentant fucker to mine. He can handle it.

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