Stabbed or Scratched: How to Describe Pain in Writing
Think about the worst pain you’ve ever experienced. How would you have described it when you were in the moment? What did it feel like? Did it have a color and texture? Maybe even a sound or a smell? Did it make you perceive your world in different ways? Did you notice what was going on around you?
Chances are, if you were in enough pain, you probably didn’t notice much beyond, “Wow, this hurts.” It might be after the fact when you start to think more about how pain affects the body and the mind. Although the weird thing about pain is the body is designed to forget it—otherwise no one would ever have more than one child–so it can be hard to recall what exactly it felt like.
Incidentally, my worst pain was probably giving birth to my son. The epidural had worn off, and it was too late to do anything about it. He was coming, and it was time to push. All I can remember are bright lights, screaming (not sure if that was me or my husband), and a lot of people surrounding me because things weren’t going very well and my little guy was stuck.
If I had to give it a color, it would have been white or light blue for the lights and uniforms of the medical personnel. If I were giving it a texture, I would say it was smooth, simply because everything was just passing me by like I was sliding through a tunnel until that moment of absolute relief when the worst of it ended with a healthy baby boy placed in my arms.
When it comes to writing about the pain your characters experience, you need to walk a fine line between taking your reader along to feel that pain without beating them over the head with it (which would also be painful).
With all that in mind, let’s talk about how to describe pain in your writing. In this article, we’ll go over:
- Challenges of writing pain
- Tips for writing about pain
- A list of pain descriptions you can use in your writing
Challenges of Writing Pain
Of course, one of the challenges of writing about pain is that everyone experiences it differently. What might feel like off the charts pain for one person might just be another day in the life of someone who lives with a chronic illness. A splitting migraine for you might feel like a normal headache to your neighbor.
We also express pain in different ways. Some people try to suppress it and pretend they’re absolutely fine, while others will make sure you know about every single ache and stitch they’re experiencing. Multiple times. And of course, there are the majority of people who will fall somewhere in between.
The other challenge with writing pain is that it can feel like a real drag to read paragraphs of how much something hurts.
Consider the following paragraph…
“She dragged herself up as needle-sharp bolts shot through her shoulder, her teeth clenching so hard her jaw ached. Her body trembled and sweat dripped down her forehead as she groaned. When she inhaled, another flash of pain had her seeing double as her head throbbed and her arm felt like it had been cut in two. She stumbled, clutching her flaring limb as her vision went dark and waves of agony seared through her body.”
OKAY, enough already.
She hurts, we get it.
You can see from that paragraph how easy it is to go from describing pain in your character to inflicting pain on your reader. It’s a fine line that, like anything, you can get better at with practice.
Tips for Writing About Pain
And of course, to help you out, we’ve got some tips to make it even easier to learn the intricacies of writing about pain.
Consider the pain level
Not all pain is created equal and some will impact your life in large ways, while others will be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. You can divide your character’s pain into four categories:
- Mild/minor/low: This is the kind of pain that is a little annoying but doesn’t hamper you. A mild headache or a sore muscle. Use words like pinch, sting, stiff, sore.
- Moderate/medium: This is a higher level of pain that doesn’t debilitate but still distracts your character from a task or breaks their concentration. Here, you might use words like ache, throb, or flare.
- Severe/high: This is a type of pain that prevents your character from doing pretty much anything. It’s the kind of pain that will have them laid up in bed. Consider words like anguish, stabbing, or torturous.
- Obliterating/extreme: This, of course, is the kind of pain that will have your hero writhing on the ground, unable to think of anything else, even pushing away thoughts of how to actually stop it. Think of words like shredding, twisting, knifing, or ripping. Ouch.
You can also consider the injury and what kinds of pain would result, such as:
- Getting stuck with a pointed object like a sword or tree branch: pricking, drilling, penetrating, stabbing, piercing
- Getting cut with an object like a blade or knife: slicing, cutting, lacerating, sharp
- Having something tear like a muscle or a joint: pulling, wrenching, tearing
- Getting crushed by something heavy like a stone or piece of a crumbling building: pressing, crushing, tight, squeezing, heavy
- Getting whipped or lashed by magic or a whip: whipping, searing, lashing, lacerating
- Getting burned by cold or hot things like fire or ice: scalding, burning, aching, tingling, freezing, numbing, scalding
- Getting attacked by some kind of magic or curse: cruel, vicious, torturing, twisting, writhing
Less is sometimes more
Remember above when we talked about how it can be a drag to read endless paragraphs about how much your character hurts? With that thought in mind, keep your descriptions tight and resist the urge to wax on for too long about it.
Conversely, if your character just got shot or got a knife in the gut, don’t forget about the pain a moment later. A serious injury doesn’t just magically disappear (unless you’ve created your world that way) just because the action is picking up. Sprinkle in gentle reminders that the injury is still present and affecting your character’s ability to get to their goal.
After the fact, don’t forget to also allude to it from time to time as they’re recovering. If they’ve been seriously injured, then they’re bound to feel pain as they heal, too. But as we’ve mentioned, keep it brief and treat it with a light hand. Just a mention here or there to weave it into the details with the rest of your story.
Show, don’t tell
Oh man, not this again. But yes, with pain, this rule is even more important. Don’t tell us it hurts. Tell us what it feels like. If your character has just been stabbed, talk about how it feels like an iron hot poker has just been shoved through their gut. If they’re being crushed by a heavy object, talk about how they’re having trouble breathing. If they’re being tortured, talk about the way they’re trying to detach from the pain and send their mind into protection mode.
Give your pain consequences
There should be a consequence for the pain, otherwise what’s the point of hurting your character? (There is one exception to this that I’ll talk about in a minute.) Think about what the pain prevents them from doing. If they’ve been stabbed, can they rescue the handsome prince from the tower?
Think about how much you want pain to play a role in your story. Do you want your reader to believe your character might not make it? Using pain as a plot device is an effective way to drive up the stakes and is a great way to show that “end of the world” moment for your down-on-their luck character.
Give your character chronic pain
Chronic pain is something many people live with and yet, we don’t tend to see it represented that often in books. Chronic pain can come in the form of a disease or disability, or something like chronic migraines. How you choose to portray that pain and what you do with it is up to you.
I mentioned above that not all pain needs to serve a purpose, and this is where chronic pain comes in. It doesn’t need to stop the character from doing anything, but it can be used to show how it affects their life, simply because that’s how people sometimes live. And it definitely doesn’t need to be “cured.” In real life, it rarely is, so for a character to simply exist with this as a part of their day to day is perfectly fine.
In fact, the trope of “healing a disability” is one that’s fallen out of favor and can actually be considered problematic. If you do choose to write about chronic pain or disability, be sure to get yourself a sensitivity reader to ensure you aren’t leaning into negative stereotypes or harmful tropes.
Research your ailments
Pain is one of those things you want to get right. While you can get away with a lot in fiction, especially if you write speculative fiction, pain and injury are pretty universal ideas.
If one of your characters gets shot or knifed in the stomach in one scene and they’re making dinner plans and heading to the gym in the next, your readers are going to give you the side eye.
Yes, it’s fiction and the pain tolerances of fictional characters can be different from real life people, but within limits.
If you’re writing a fantasy creature that heals quickly, that might be one way to overcome an extreme injury. Or maybe you’re writing a thriller with a Jack Ryan-type hero who would never let a little bullet wound get in his way.
But for most, breathing, living characters, getting their arm nearly hacked off is going to take them down. Make sure you’re exercising realistic limits of pain tolerance.
The blog Script Medic is a great place to start where a medical professional breaks down various injuries for writers. It’s a great way to get information without filling your search history with things the FBI might investigate you for.
Here are some words and phrases to help you describe pain in writing. Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but this should help get you started:
- A pale complexion
- Arching of the back
- Avoiding others
- Begging to die
- Bent back
- Biting a bottom lip
- Blacking out
- Blotchy skin
- Blurred vision
- Body going into shock
- Calling for help or aid
- Clenched hands and limbs
- Clenching or grinding of teeth
- Dark hollows under the eyes
- Darkness in the corner of vision
- Dragging one foot
- Drawn face
- Drinking excessive alcohol
- Drooping eyelids
- Dry mouth
- Eyes squeezed shut
- Flinching at contact
- Gingerly moving about
- Glassed over eyes
- Gripping another person for help
- Haggard expression
- Hands gripping clothing
- Hanging on to the wall or furniture for support
- Hunched shoulders
- Impatient gestures
- Limp arms, legs, hands, or fingers
- Looking away
- Mouth hanging open
- Nostrils flaring
- Praying to gods of deities
- Repeating oneself
- Rocking or swaying back and forth
- Rubbing areas of pain
- Sawing breaths
- Short, panting breaths
- Shuddering breaths
- Slack jaw
- Standing still
- Starbursts or floaties in the eyes
- Stilted gait
- Sweat on the brow
- Taking medication
- Tapping the foot
- Taste of blood or copper in mouth
- Tears or wet eyes
- Tentative steps
- Tight muscles and limbs
- Walking stiffly
- Watering eyes
- White lips
By now, you’re hopefully a bonafide expert on the art of writing pain. As with anything, make sure you’re reading lots of books where pain is described. It can help you see what works and, maybe more importantly, what doesn’t. If you’re reading a book and the character’s pain is starting to feel like a drag, then that’s a good sign the author has taken it too far.
But if you find yourself aware of the pain, but not distracted by it, then that’s a sign they’ve done their job well.
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