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.