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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Having endured a great deal of it myself...

Author Topic: Having endured a great deal of it myself...
Member # 2109

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...and thereby not being impressed by what I have read, I wondered how many of you have read (or written) really convincing descriptions of injuries and their attendant pain in speculative fiction.

I've been kicked and bitten by horses, tromped on by a bull, butted by billies, knifed by a (so-called) tough, had teeth pulled without anesthetic (gahh!), broken over 30 bones in 8 incidents, had 3rd-degree burns, and been snake-bitten. Not to mention being slapped by women!

I know pain. I live with it every day. Most of the times when I read about injuries and pain in speculative fiction I find myself just shaking my head in disbelief.

Now I intend to write a scene that convincingly portrays pain (note that I said convincingly and not realistically).

Who writes convincingly about pain? What comments or advice do you have? What is your 'philosophy' of describing pain in your writing?

[This message has been edited by mikemunsil (edited March 13, 2005).]

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I think simply noting that there is pain, when appropriate, is ideal.

For example: in real life, when I broke my neck, I didn't feel it at first. The adrenaline surge I had just before the head-on collision completely dulled my sense of pain. This is a necessary survival mechanism, or part of the fight or flight instinct in all of us. About four hours later, I was in mild discomfort, and then, shortly thereafter, in agony every time I moved my neck. To this day, I live with a dull ache that never subsides. I'm used to it, I only notice it when I think about it.

Approaching the art of writing about pain convincingly, if a character gets a broken rib, they'll feel something initially -- certainly the blow and maybe a sharp twinge of pain, and then it will subside as adrenaline courses through the body. (A character will also probably hear their bones crack in the right circumstances.)

But if the character is already in the middle of the fight, adrenaline will already be surging, and thus one would only feel the blow [pressure, force of impact] to the ribs (and again, possibly hear the bones crack). If there is any agonizing pain to be felt, it will be extremely short-lived until well after the fight ends.

Now that's kind of boring, fiction-wise, but not necessarily. The key thing, I feel, is to be consistent with a character's pain later. If said character has a broken rib, he is going to feel it any time he moves about. It should be nagging at him, causing him to wince, slowing him down, making him feel regret for getting the injury, second-guessing himself, etc., etc. That to me is convincing description of pain.

Maybe. It all depends on the situation. Torture, on the other hand, is about delivering the maximum amount of pain and bypassing the body's natural defenses. If going for that kind of pain, no holds are barred.

By the way, Mike, that's a lot of injuries for one person to suffer through. But it does explain a lot about you... I'm not going to ask about the women slapping you, however...

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You know, I think that pain is as difficult to read as it is to describe because it is not something we can imagine unless we have had that kind of pain. You can perfectly describe someone getting his arm chopped off and I am still not going to know what it feels like. I think describing pain is difficult for several reasons:
1. Everyone feels pain differently.
2. It is abstract - like trying to describe a taste to someone who has never tasted that food.
3. Somehow, a written description never matches the felt experience.

In light of that, I think that the best description of pain would have fewer details, rather than more. Force the reader to imagine it by NOT providing too many details. They will fill in the gaps, compare it to something from their own experience, and believe your story more for it.

When I have described pain, I tend to focus only on the details that make that pain unique. For example, I have never had broken, cracked, or bruised my ribs (thank goodness). I have known people who have and two things stand out about their description of it: There is no comfortable position other than standing and every breath is agony. Those two things are unique to a rib injury. Therefore, if I were to describe someone with injured ribs, I would show him continually standing, or trying to sit gingerly on the edge of a chair and then standing again because it hurts too much. I would show how he takes small, shallow breaths.

Unless the pain itself is a major player in the story, I think that it would be better to show the character's reaction to the pain, rather than trying to describe the pain itself.

One last note: I would make sure to do a lot of research regarding the type of injury or pain you are going to describe. If you are using your own experiences as a basis, make sure that your experience was not a rare deviation from the norm for some reason. If for some odd reason, the pain of your injured ribs was alleviated by curling into a ball, no one will believe you unless they know you personally and know that you would not lie to them.

I just read HSO’s post and I second everything she said. The character is most likely going to feel any pain much more the day after the injury. Pain always seems to get worse before it gets better. As I am sure you know, poor thing. I am never going to complain about my little injuries again!

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I'm reading Stephen King's memoir on writing. During the curiculum vitae section he describes several painful childhood incidents which had me wincing with him. Perhaps the reason those work is because it is not fiction, so the writer actually knows what he's talking about. In most of fiction, particuarly speculative, we're talking about the kinds of pain none of us are likely to experience, so the author just has to make something up.

I have never been pierced with a sword, fallen off a horse, been slammed against a wall by a wizard, shot with a ray gun, or put through hyperspace. Which leaves me with my most painful experiences....I fractured one bone, when I was in sixth grade. And cramps. I've had other injuries, but either have a high pain threshold or they've been minor.

Oh. And allergies. Someday, I'm going to write a fantasy novel where the hero is afflicted with hay fever.

All of which means that when I want to write about something I have not experienced--like concussions--I have to ask people. So, Mike, you've just become my number one resource.

[This message has been edited by MaryRobinette (edited March 13, 2005).]

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Not to spoil the surprise, MaryRobinette, but wait till you get to the part about the traffic accident. Had me hopping mad.
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I'm like Mike I have been stabbed, broken, and burned so many times it isn't funny.

I have been stabbed by a sword and initially it did not hurt. One moment it was not in then it was I looked at it and then it hurt! (I was stabbed thru the hand) But it was not crippling pain.

I had one lady stab me in the chest with ginsu knife that wasn't crippling either.

I was once hit by a car and put in a coma for nine weeks with triple compund fractures and crushed skull but like it was said before that was not that painful because my body blocked it out.

But Appendicitis! and Cellulitis! Those are pretastes of hell! They were the worst followed very closely by my ex wife filling my prep-h cream with Ben Gay one night. Oh my! That is not describable.

Just on the pain level I'd take a stab or a burn to the ben gay treatment anyday.

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Pyre Dynasty
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I think OSC did a good job in a thousand deaths. Otherwise I haven't seen much pain referred to.
Personally I've been Electrocuted a few times, Not so much that I was damaged but enough for it to hurt like a fluffy bunny. Recently I had an ingrown toenail that was painful, I also have a resistance to anestetic so the work on that was nutso. and every tooth situation is horrendus.

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Some good comments here. I think that what I'm taking away from this thread is that it is the reaction to pain that we should describe and not the pain itself, and by showing, not telling.

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I'm not sure you have to describe the pain. Rather, describe the act that causes the pain, the reader's imagination will do the rest.

I've thought about this a lot recently as I read and write because there are things such as emotions and feelings which are hard to describe. Then as I've read, especially recent works by Stephen King, I've discovered a nasty little secret -- he never once tells me what the pain FEELS like, he simply tells me what caused the pain.

For instance: A man sits in a spintered wooden chair wearing nothing but his underwear. His arms are tied behind his back and the ropes which bind him are beginning to bite into the skin on his wrists. Slivers of wood are digging their way into his legs and back, and he's been left there for hours while a secret agent interrogates him. At one point, tired of going around in circles, the agent takes a poker from a fire, the point glowing red, and jams it up the man's left nostril. The man feels the skin inside his nose blister and peel away from the scalding tip of the poker. He nearly cried, but fought the tears back.

Not the greatest example, but the point is, not once did I say "the rope hurt" or "the spinters were painful" or "holy hot hoote-hoo did that poker up the nose bit hurt like the heavens."

But I'll bet you knew what sort of pain he was in....

I just don't think you can say "it hurt like the dickens...like, really really really really bad with icky cream on top and a side of nasty" enough times to get the same message across as one simple image:

"They buried him up to his head, coated his face with sugar, then dropped a box of fire ants on him."

my 2 pennies....

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I agree with rjzeller in the main.
The one thing I would add though is that sometimes you will read something about pain, and a single word will stand out. You think, 'Ahh he knows what he's talking about.'

For me, it is 'swoop'. Having suffered from migraines, the word 'swoop' in a passage about a headache or diziness tells me 'this person knows'.

Others may never have experienced the 'swoop' of a migraine, they may describe it differently, but I know what the writer meant when he said 'swoop.'

Don't get a good word, get the right word.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 14, 2005).]

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I just wanted to make two comments:

I am constatly amazed by the variety of experiences accesible here. Stabbed in the chest with a ginsu . . .

MaryRobinette, you should try falling off a horse at least once. I did it multiple times a day for over a year (sadistic riding instructor when I worked at--don't laugh--Medieval Times) and it really changes your perspective on horses. And falling. And the value of having a foot-deep sand surface to fall on. And, more relevantly to this board, the believability of Sir Whoever getting thrown from his horse in 80 pounds of plate armor, then getting up and fighting like nothing happened.

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I recently read Gerald's Game, by Stephen King. The scene where the POV character devises a way to escape from the handcuffs was brutal. I felt her pain. I could hardly read it. I think it is the only time I have ever really felt a character's pain. Makes me ill just thinking about it. I don't know exactly what he did, but if you can recreate that, you will have truly convincing pain.
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I'll have to look at that. Thanks!
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One of the strange things about pain is that not only can we not imagine pain we have never felt, but we can only vaguely remember pain we have felt. Try to remember how it felt when you broke your leg, or sprained your ankle, or got a nasty cut, or had a migraine. You remember that you *felt* the pain, but do you really remember what that pain was like, specifically? Heck, I can't even remember precisely what menstrual cramps feel like in between cycles and I get those on a regular basis.

Pain is best described fleetingly, with as little attempt to describe the actual physical experience as possible. Try to get the reader to imagine the pain for themselves rather than telling them about it, much like emotion. There are some things we can use, like adrenaline and shock, to help. Many people don't feel pain right away and that's a useful tool in and of itself.

I always like examples when it comes to this, so let's use a true story:

When I was twelve I went to a camp and learned to ridea horse. We did an overnight trail ride the last couple of days and were deep in the woods when the group leader decided to have us start galloping around the bends in the forest. Just as my horse took off under me, I began to feel that the saddle was not tightened down properly. I could feel it slipping as we rounded a corner at full speed, the horse turning his body and the saddle slipping to the side. I knew it was about to happen a second before it did, but I could not stop it -- a massive oak tree came to meet me as I attempted to sit on the horse's side rather than his back. I stayed with the tree while the horse kept going. I could barely breathe and I was not entirely coherent for a few minutes.

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Yea... kinda what Christine said. You can describe the pain a little more if it's really intense... but don't go so far that the pain quickly becomes completely ridicules... and I can't think of any good examples right now... so... hopefully you're following...
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