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Writer Tips: Pain

Q: How would you describe in dialogue, someone talking while they'er in pain. Like, "My phone... arg... It's.. uh.. In my back.. pocket..." Or would you do it in dialogue tags. "My phone--" He gritted his teeth, his voice breaking as he groaned in pain. "It's.. uh.. in my back... pocket..."

Pain happens in novels. People get shot. People break things like bones, people get cut. There is also emotional pain. Pain of loss, pain of betrayal. Lots of pain.  So you might be surprised when you go looking for tips on conveying pain and find very little out there, or in books about fiction writing. There is a good reason for this.

I can recall that whole day in detail. The drugs they gave me did nothing. I was on a morphine drip four hours later -- nothing.   I can describe it as a fact -- but I can't recall the pain itself. Our brains don't have that function. -- and neither does the reader's.

Pain is part of life and if your story doesn't have a moment of pain  its not very interesting. Even Dr. Sesus and Charles Schultz had pain in their stories. A great deal of pain in fact. So, what's the deal?

First let's address the question: How to show the pain?

It is in these places, these
hidden rooms of my history,
inside their silence and darkness,
and shelter, where I
find violent inciting light
My first answer to the question that started this post, which offers two options is: Neither.

There is the third option of using stronger focus on action, and giving perspective by moving the camera forward, then switching to black and white. Remove details. People in pain don't care about objects in the room, only the location of the door offering escape and assistance..

Use short chopped sentences, but not with the ellipses. Just short.

"Migraines? I get them. Sure.
Talking hurts.
Cussing is hard.
Confusion and pain. That's all that exists.
Often, I won't answer."

Most actions from someone in great pain take time --It takes time to talk yourself into the action -- is it necessary? Moving?.

Vocabulary on the phone? A good tool might be using grunts to replace most words.. If this MC is one of those Action Die-hards, the idea is the same, only the debate is shorter.

Questions like "Where are you?" on the phone... use the camera and send a photo instead of trying to talk.

For body language manifestations, a sharp inhale is good. Sharp sudden pain that doubles him over is also good. Pant just after a spike of pain, the breath deep through the nose, as you try to control your breathing and settle down your heart. People do this as the pain starts as well, feeling that if they can control their breathing they can control the flareup -- they are wrong of course, but it gives them something to do, something to help that helpless feeling. Rudeness sets in. Hard eyes try to glare, eyes that don't quite focus all the way:

"Do you have a phone John?"

John's leg, the swelling was strained against the jeans now. The denim was so tight it had a sheen. His pulse was hard. Throbbing, Yeah. That was the word. Throbbing. Throbbing wasn't good. John couldn't remember why, or if he ever knew why. He blinked. What's going to happen now? It can't swell any further.


John looked at him.

"Phone? Do you have one?"

John thought about lifting his ass cheek high enough to get the phone out of his back pocket.With no warning or buildup a sharp spike ran up his leg and into his gut. A rusty electric lance of jagged glass. He sucked in a sharp breath when it impaled him, his body jerked, to get away. The reflexive jerk of his body unleashed whatever was throbbing inside his thigh, and it ripped through his insides, insane and clawing for escape. His lungs exploded, expelling them empty in a blast, and his eyes squeezed shut so hard he saw white.



"Do you have a phone?"


I'm going to slice you. Cut through
your skin and peal it back. Ever seen a
rabbit skinned? It's like that only the
rabbit is dead. We're going
to keep you alive, and awake

The Use of Profanity Eases Pain, and also has several other qualities which can enhance your story


the Real Issue of Pain

Pain is difficult to convey. Which is why people use ellipses (which is basically the author attempting to 'sketch' it for the reader) and the tags, which is ... it's fine ... except it isn't realizing the real issue with conveying pain. The real issue is that our brains don't retain the memory of pain.

I went off the road on my Harley -- hit black ice around a curve and me and the bike flew off the road and slammed into a tree. It was fast. Like a blink. My right leg was between the bike and the tree. Snapped the femur. That's difficult to do. The femur is a thick bone with a mass of muscle tissue around it, giving support and protection. The doctor kept commenting on that when they were trying to set it -- after they had me in full restraints and several guys holding my chest down.

I can recall that whole day in detail. The drugs they gave me did nothing. I was on a morphine drip four hours later -- nothing.   I can describe it as a fact -- but I can't recall the pain itself. Ask any mother about child birth she'll laugh and use several adjectives, but you can tell she really can't bring the fullness of the experience to mind. I've even heard some say "...well, I was young, it really wasn't that big of a deal."-- this from a woman who was in labor for 12 hours. I wouldn't want to do something that felt good for 12 hours. It was a big deal. It was... but we can't bring it fully to mind. The real memory isn't there. Our brains don't have that function. -- and neither does the reader's. So, even if you could describe the pain, it's not going to make a connection.

However, (don't give me that look yet, I know you might have winced) What we CAN conjure in our minds is the Anticipation of pain.

All of the studies I found on the subject of pain communication dealt with methods for clarity between patient and doctor There are 100s of these studies and even more methods and none of them are reliable methods for accurate communication..From straight talk to metaphor, and the methods between. The communication of pain eludes us.

The best example I've ever read was Misery by Stephen King.The MC of that story is in bed because he had an accident and is already in pain. King deals with Paul Sheldon's pain directly, with little decoration, and he does it sparsely as well.. He invests heavily in  showing us how far gone  Annie Wilkes is, and his words become ticks and tocks,  moving us closer, counting down to the moment she will... do something horrible.

We don't know what horror she will bring, but King gives us glimpses of what she is capable of. No question that she is our monster.

Only a fraction of energy is spent on what is real, and  tormenting Paul right now. And why should he spend time on Paul's pain? We'll never connect to it anyway. We do not have that capacity. So, King wisely goes for the anticipation of pain.  -- well, he's King, did you expect less?

Anticipation is is a drug. No matter it's source or the genre of consumption, it hits the blood stream, and lights up the veins of your lungs on your next inhale, where it oxidizes, boils and sublimates to vapor -- its weaponized state. Charged and with fire close at hand it kicks you right in the adrenal gland.

Anticipation is the stem cell of the emotion foundry. The build up of tension, passing through stages, rising, but not smoothly. Each threshold breached is a boot landing hard on an ancient cellar step. A step achieved whether for thrills or against the will, is now your state of being until climax. No backing down.

Some sources, such as Wikipedia focus on the positive variations of anticipation. That anxiety of the thirteen hours before Christmas morn, which for any preteen child is nothing less than an exhausting madness. Perhaps they are sugar plumbs, but whatever they are, they have hatchets and are mumbling RedRum as they dance around their bond-fire under a predator moon..

Another anticipation spurned by positive emotion is the coursing energy through the mass of fans moments before the band appears on stage. The communal amplification of energy passing in wild waves from one close body to the next close body with bodies so close the wild hunt of energy rushes in a cacophony of waves and lashing tides -- with fang and claw this feline shaped spirit runs  vicious and wild across the crowd, seeking its escape from the stadium. How many people have added to your energy? Hundreds? Thousands? How much energy can the body take before the transformers explode? You are far past the boundaries of excitement before that curtain rises, you are well into a state of weaponized radiance, ready to incite, riot and ...

Hey, sorry kid, but we have to
cut off your finger. Nothing personal
These are the effects of anticipation churned by positive emotions. The good ones, right?

Watching the agent of pain moving toward you at a constant bearing, decreasing range. Knowing it carries in its hand the instrument of your demise, -- as it heralds that your last breath is nigh from the black empty cowl -- many people experience a sudden and profound understanding -- that as the specter is there --  the blue flame  eyes clearly seen and in its hand the scythe -- it is the man with the hammer who approaches, who holds all of your attention. The man is just human. He's like any other man. There is no secret about his arrival.  You knew he would come, you know why he is here. You know his intent. He explained it in detail before he left and locked the door.  He has come  to strap your hand flat to the anvil and smash the end of your ring finger off with his silver mallet.

Between Death, and the man with the mallet, who is more worrisome? The man, exactly. After all, Death can only take your soul, once. There are ten fingers for the hammer.

The strongest motivator -- emotive -- for a human as a biological being is not pain, or death, but rather approaching pain. Those well versed and trained in torture know the value of away time. They know  to cut and tear and burn longer than ten minutes is a waste of time - nor will your victim scream the secrets you are seeking during that time. No, once the pain has begun, there is no motivation. There is only pain. The window is between 3 and 7 minutes. Tear, and cut and burn for that long, and then leave for 20 minutes.

... promising to come back.

It is then, after listening to your jackboots come down the hall with echos slapping empty through the corridor, and then the jarring jangle of the keys when you release them from your belt -- the turn of the heavy lock -- your silhouette framed in the door, the hammer in your fist coming for its third finger -- that is when he will talk. He'll tell you anything... anything at all. -- which is why you were wasting your time before you began. But that is another story.

No one can threaten and torment a mind better than  it can do to itself. This includes the mind of your reader.

Pain can not be a shared experience with the reader but the dread knowing of its approach can.

Roosevelt stood before us, and assured the nation it had nothing to fear but fear itself.  On the 25th of November 2013  Dr. Simon Makin gave us the measure of that statement. His study demonstrated a surprising result. With a strong level of certainty humans will gladly endure a little more pain, if it means that they do not have to wait as long for it to arrive. Let that sink in for a moment or two, because in effect and truth, Dr. Makin suggest, that given the choice -- one hammer blow mashing your finger tip two hours from now, is more agonizing than two blows right now.

Again, the reason is simple. We can't bring to mind the true reality of the pain we are agreeing to as a current and present threat -- but two hours of waiting for it to arrive -- aw f*%k --, that we can visualize with clarity, and in agonizing detail. The researchers, to describe this encumbrance we will go to great lengths to avoid, used the term -- dread.

That,  the reader can get into. The anticipation, the knowing the pain is coming -- the dread -- can be so vivid it can force the reader to physically react to the story with acute levels of -- dread.

So instead of focusing on conveying the pain, focus on the pain to come. It may seem counter intuitive, you might feel it is an odd equation which places a far greater value on the bird in the bush, over the five in the hand  -- my answer can only be "It's your hand, and your fingers. Ultimately, your choice. Think about it, think well. I"ll be back in say, twenty minutes?"

Half the work, 4x the bang for your reader.

On New Scientist:  Waiting for pain can cause more dread than pain itself

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