How to Write About Pain in Fiction
by Stacey Bowditch
You’re in the midst of writing your story and you want to introduce pain to your character—a physical ailment which is going to impair them somehow.
This could be anything from an epic battle scene where they lose a limb or a street brawl outside a bar. Or it could even be something as simple as falling down the stairs or contracting an illness with physical consequences.
But how do you show their pain? And isn’t pain subjective anyway? What really hurts for one person will merely make another blink depending on their past experiences with pain and their natural pain threshold.
So how do you show that your character is in the most pain they’ve ever felt in their entire life? Because even then, it’s still subjective. And sometimes, a more intense but short-lived pain is easier to cope with than a long, enduring, dull pain.
Before we delve into how to write about pain, let’s firstly decide on what you want the pain to achieve. What we mean by this is that all pain should have a consequence, and by using the pain scale below you can get an idea of how much pain you should inflict on your character.
Minor and mild pain: a pain that’s noticeable but not distracting
Moderate pain: a pain that distracts, but doesn’t stop
Severe pain: a pain that cannot be ignored and will stop somebody in their tracks
Debilitating pain: a pain so severe that the person cannot do anything but give the pain one hundred per cent of their concentration; it’s like nothing else in the world exists.
Once you know what scale of pain you want your character to experience, you can start to think about how you want to describe it. Depending on what you want it to achieve, first consider if you even need to mention the pain or if your readers can pick it up without you even needing to say it.
Do you even need to say it?
What kind of pain would somebody feel when their arm is chopped off in the midst of battle? Can you imagine, even slightly, how much it would hurt? Probably. So, as the author, do you even need to mention the pain felt if this were to happen to your character? Or are you readers smart enough to imagine the amount of pain felt?
If in your scene it’s clear what happens, your readers will know it hurts like mad without you explicitly saying it does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to make a big deal out of the pain; trust your readers to empathise and use their imaginations.
Remember, not everything has to be told. We also don’t say in our story that our characters are going to the toilet, but our readers don’t automatically assume those characters don’t have bladders just because we haven’t specifically said it.
By keeping your description of pain minimal and trusting your readers to fill in any gaps, you can focus on what really matters. This is especially important to note if your characters are prone to fights or accidents; your readers do not want to read a three paragraph description every single time your character gets punched or falls over.
If you decide that it’s right to talk about the pain, let’s next look at actually describing it.
Think back to the times you’ve hurt yourself. How many times have you been asked to describe the pain on a scale of 1–10? And how many times have you been asked to use words such as, ‘stabbing, piercing, dull, sharp, cramping, etc’ to try to describe exactly what it is that you’re feeling?
And while that brief description might be sufficient to tell your doctor, it’s likely not going to be enough for your story; you may find that you have to delve deeper.
Pain can affect how a person acts, from an increase of irritability and lack of concentration through to poor decision making. Pain can also affect a person’s physical presence—it can change the way a person walks and moves, and it can even affect how they interact with the world around them. This can be either short term or long term, depending on how long the pain lasts, or both. See the above pain scale for reference.
Merely telling a reader that your hero experienced the worst pain he’s ever felt in his life as his arm was cut off in the middle of an epic battle just isn’t going to cut it (sorry not sorry for the pun).
So the question should become how? HOW do you show pain? How do you show that niggling irrelevant pain of stubbing a toe through to the gut-wrenching pain that stops you in your tracks? And how do you show a severe degree of pain without going overboard?
In a fast-paced action scene, for instance, mixing up common descriptors and physical reactions could be ideal. And then, when things slow down a bit, the emotional reaction can reiterate what was felt without the need to repeat yourself—a common trap that many writers fall into when talking about injuries and pain.
Pain — show or tell?
Aah, the golden question; show or tell? And the same question applies to whether you should show or tell your reader that your character is in pain. But before you get bored with the same old argument, bear with me… because showing your character is in pain can alleviate the worry of how to describe pain without being over the top, too vague, or repeating yourself.
Let’s take an example. Let’s call him Commander Bob. We could tell our readers about his pain:
‘Commander Bob dropped to the floor, writhing in agony as his left arm was severed from his shoulder by the enemy’s savage axe.’
Pretty brutal, right? I think it’s safe to say that any reader will appreciate just how much pain Commander Bob’s in. But what if we showed our readers instead? What if we showed the physical and emotional reaction to what happened?
So instead of saying he was writhing in agony, how can we show it? We can start by thinking of questions which focus on the physical reactions to the event, such as:
Does he let out a scream or wail as it happens? Does the scream ‘just happen’ or does he have control over whether he stops it?
What happens to his legs before he falls to the floor? Do they go to jelly? Or perhaps he passes out briefly and comes round writhing on the floor?
Is his breath taken away? Does it induce a panic attack?
Is his first reaction to reach for the stump where his arm used to be?
Is his entire body shaking uncontrollably?
Does he go ice cold with a chattering jaw he cannot stop?
Then we can think about how it made him feel and the emotional reaction to the event. We can ask questions like:
How does it make him feel seeing his own arm lying on the ground?
How does he feel when the realisation of what happened hits him? Scared? Angry? Sick to the stomach? Vulnerable? Helpless? Humiliated?
Do his thoughts change? Do they go from focusing on the fight at hand to how is he going to cope without his arm?
Does he panic? And how does he react to being in such a situation? Is he a fight or flight kinda guy?
How does his reaction to the event make him feel? For example, if he wailed like a baby and he’s quite a lad’s lad, does he feel embarrassed? Does he see this kind of reaction as a weakness?
By thinking about these questions and knowing how you want the scene to play out, how the character reacts both physically and emotionally, you’ll have a solid foundation for showing how your character is inflicted with a trauma and how it affects them.
How much something actually hurts is only relevant to the person it’s happening to and what that means to them. Because even if the worst pain in the world doesn’t make them act or feel differently, there’s little point in even saying it, right?
Tip: Don’t forget the other senses when showing pain—there’ll be the smell of blood and bodily fluids (it’s not uncommon for people to pee themselves when experiencing a trauma) and for some injuries, there will be an obvious sound. We usually hear something before we realise (and feel) what’s happened. And for other injuries, we don’t feel pain until we see the injury (or blood)—this usually happens when we receive a very clean sharp cut rather than a cut from something which ‘tears’ the skin.
Agony vs Adrenaline. Keeping it realistic
I’m sure we’ve all seen a movie or read a book where either the antagonist or protagonist can keep fighting and fighting and fighting no matter what seems to happen to them. Thrown from a third store window? Keep fighting. Clobbered round the head with an iron bar? Shake their head and keep fighting. Shot in the shoulder? Yep… no problem. Keep fighting. You get the point.
How many times after getting up – again – did you start screaming at the screen/page that they should be dead by now? Unless the person’s Thor, they probably should be. So then what happens? Your believability begins to wane and you lose trust in the story and the author. You may not even bother to pick the book up again or watch the next episode on Netflix. Worse still, your characters (and story) become a joke.
So then how do you stop yourself from making the same mistake? You want your character to go through quite the fight. It’s meant to be a challenge and they might even be somewhat superhuman. They might have magic that helps them, or perhaps they’re exceptionally trained killers. But even still, they’re not indestructible (and if they are, this really isn’t the article for you!).
To avoid losing your readers and making your characters become unrelatable and unbelievable, keep an element of realism. While it’s okay to exaggerate some things for drama, you shouldn’t exaggerate everything.
Remember, adrenaline makes humans capable of much more when they are put in dangerous situations—you know, that burst of speed you’re never usually capable of, that sudden strength you find when lifting something heavy off a trapped child, these every-day superhuman strengths. But adrenaline doesn’t make somebody indestructible.
When put in a fight or flight situation, there are physiological and chemical changes happening within the body. Whether you have one species or a hundred in your book, this point should be kept in mind for all of your characters.
Why not try researching how adrenaline affects different animals and apply some of those changes to different races in your story? How it affects prey and predators could be especially useful.
Lastly, it’s important to note that everybody has a line where pain will eventually incapacitate them. Where that line is will depend on your character’s pain threshold and how they handle pain in general. While there’s no right or wrong way to write about pain, it should still be believable and in line with your readers’ expectations of what’s tolerable for each individual character.
After the incident
The pain felt by your character may be momentary, lasting for only a brief period of time. Or it may have resulted in some form of injury that will require a period of healing. If it’s the latter, don’t make the mistake of forgetting about it come the next scene.
How many times have you read how a character has broken ribs in one scene and then in the next, is having intimate moments with his love interest with no problems whatsoever. Hmm? What happened to the broken ribs, Romeo?
So when you’re thinking about the kind of pain and/or injury you want your character to experience, you also have to consider how long you want it to impact them for.
Okay, so how many times should you reference the pain? Because any pain that actually matters won’t just be referenced once and then forgotten about. Wounds take time to heal, broken bones take time to repair. There are stages to each, from itchy scabs and tender body parts through to blasts of lightning shooting up a broken bone should it be jolted.
Injuries and pain need to have consequences, otherwise there’s zero point in including them.
When referencing the pain again, you need to be mindful that you’re not just repeating yourself. If you decide to tell the reader that the character’s still in pain, you should limit the reference to at most, once per scene.
However, if you show the reader the character’s ongoing pain and injury and how it’s affecting them, you can be a lot more creative with how you do it. Therefore, the injury can have a bigger impact and there can be multiple references to it in one scene.
Remember what we said earlier? Certain pain and injuries can change a person’s characteristics. The inclusion of these changes can be a great reference to the character’s injury without being repetitive. It also shows the importance and relevance to their journey and how it hinders (or helps!) them.
Another note of worth: pain isn’t always consistent. Depending on the injury or what’s causing the pain, it can come in peaks and then die down again. It can peak because the injury is tender, because the character moved in a certain way, or even because of a simple thing like a cough or sneeze.
Pain and injury can affect the way that somebody behaves, walks, sits, interacts with the world around them and even the way they speak—labouring for breath or maybe speaking in short bursts in between breaths.
Whatever type of pain or injury you decide to inflict on your character, keep it realistic and make reference to it after the event. As we said earlier, any pain that actually matters won’t just be referenced once and then forgotten about.
Ensure you do some research on the type of injury you are going to give to your character so you have an idea of the amount of time it generally takes to heal. That way, you can keep your readers’ expectations met and if you want to speed up or delay the process based on magic or other conditions within the story, you can. But if you do, just remember to also reference how this time for healing seems out of the ordinary.
All injuries have consequences and these should be seriously considered when deciding on what happens to your character. Injuries shouldn’t be used as a one-off thought—it’s unrealistic, unbelievable and risks drawing your reader out of your story.
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