How to Write About Pain in Fiction

Read our guide on how to write about pain in fiction and how it may help you to leverage pain to add depth to your story, differentiate among characters and propel your plot forward.

When your character experiences emotional, psychological or physical pain, conveying that pain to your readers takes a talented writer. You communicate what the character is experiencing in a way that readers regard as credible and integral to the story. Help your readers empathize with your character’s pain.

When engaged in fiction writing, how can you describe or write about pain accurately? Pain is a part of life, so many writers can use their own experience. Ernest Hemingway had this: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Of course, Hemingway had his own unique style of writing. Not every pain should be blatantly described; as you’ll see from the following article, there are different ways of writing about pain. If you’re interested in this topic, you’ll love our guide on how to write a backstory.

How to Describe Pain in Writing

Ideally, you would want to have experienced either the same type of pain as your character or similar pain. Past experience will inform how you approach and choose to convey the task.

Understanding Pain

Regardless of the circumstances your character finds themselves in, bear in mind that there are three types of pain: physical, emotional, and psychological, and they are not mutually exclusive. A person may experience one, two or all three simultaneously or in succession.

A great example of this is Emily Blunt’s character in the screenplay for A Quiet Place, Part II. Evelyn Abbott, played by Emily Blunt, is simultaneously experiencing the pain of childbirth (physical), the pain of not having a partner to help her (emotional), and the fear of giving birth in a dangerous environment (psychological).

How to Accurately Describe Pain in Writing

Writers should have at least a modicum of intuitiveness. You must know how a particular pain feels to describe it accurately. But what if you’re lucky and never had the same pain as your character? In that case, you should research to find out what it’s like.

Watching documentaries about real-life traumas can help. For instance, the Netflix documentary “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari” details the horrific events that unfolded when cruise passengers got caught up in a volcano that erupted while they were sightseeing. The victims describe in detail what it felt like. Be sure to source real-life events, not works of fiction, because you want unfiltered depictions, not descriptions that have been watered down or put through someone else’s perspective that didn’t go through it.

Step 1: Show, Don’t Tell

Instead of saying things outright, you can depict pain by the character’s reaction. For example, if a character breaks a bone playing soccer:

  • Telling: The pain seared into his femur and traveled up his leg like a bolt of lightning.
  • Showing: He fell instantly onto the pitch, grasping his leg and writhing, his face contorted as a terrifying scream erupted from his lungs. 

Self-inflicted Pain

Writing about self-inflicted pain takes courage and sensitivity. There are many reasons why a character might inflict pain upon themselves:

  • returning to a place that triggers painful emotions
  • trying to win back a lover who keeps rejecting them
  • going back to a physically abusive spouse
  • drowning sorrows in alcohol/drugs

Write while keeping in mind how you want your reader to perceive the character. For example, in the book “Living Las Vegas” by John O’Brien, the character Ben drives to Vegas to drink himself to death. Do you want your readers to condemn your character for being weak enough to end their own life? Or do you want them to feel pity for your character, who has lost all sense of self-worth?

It’s all about how you want your readers to perceive your character.

Step 2: Use Sensory Details to Describe Physical Pain

Use sensory details to describe physical pain
Use words not necessarily tied to the description of pain, yet when used in this way, they are striking and apropos

Sensory details can evoke understanding in your readers. Use all the senses when possible. Consider this example:

“A strange taste of iron filled his mouth. He hadn’t known the taste of blood before, but he knew he would never forget. His vision blurry, he struggled to remain standing as the room swirled before his eyes, the stench of sweat permeating his nostrils. The crown cheered, but not for him. His knees buckled and he heard the snap of his ankle before the angry pain jettisoned through his bone.”

Step 3: Choose the Right Words to Convey The Intensity of the Pain

In the example above, notice the words; “swirled, permeating, buckled, angry, jettisoned.” These are words not necessarily tied to the description of pain, yet when used in this way, they are striking and apropos.

Don’t limit yourself to common “pain” words like “hurt, aching, tender, sore, bruised,” etc. Instead, get creative and source strong words that can be repurposed to get your readers to sense what your character is feeling.

Step 4: Consider the Character’s Perspective and Personality

Try different ways to give pain to your character. For instance, your character could have chronic pain that might move the story along or play a dramatic role. Consider using pain as a background to the action. Does the character rub his arthritic hands at the end of the day? Maybe the arthritic pain grips him just as he needs to pull the trigger on a bad guy, allowing the villain to escape.

You could show strength in your character by letting readers in on his old army injury, show how he works through the pain each day, yet his colleagues don’t know of his suffering.

Step 5: Convey Emotional Pain Through Actions And Dialogue

Convey emotional pain through actions and dialogue
Use actions and dialogue instead of using sentences

Don’t be obvious when writing about emotional pain. Use actions and dialogue instead of using sentences like, “She felt betrayed.” or “She cried herself to sleep.”

Instead, what about: “She stared into his eyes and knew he was lying.” or “She lay in a fetal position on the bed; wet, wadded tissues carpeting the floor.”

Step 6: Balance Internal and External Reactions to Emotional Pain

Think about how people often hide their emotional pain. Most of us don’t walk around weeping in public. You could try writing about emotional pain using a technique called juxtaposition:

“It was Saturday. Laundry day. An hour had passed. She sat motionless in front of the dryer, watching her baby’s tiny clothes tumble around behind the glass bubble in the door while she gently held one stray, tiny sock in her lap, a smattering of dried blood marring the pink polka dot pattern.”

Step 7: Use Metaphors and Symbolism to Convey Emotional Pain

metaphor is a way to describe one thing in terms of something else. Common metaphors relating to pain include:

“His sharp words felt like a knife through my heart.”

“The betrayal was like being stabbed in the back.”

Symbolism is a powerful way to write about emotional pain, too.

“She gripped the scissors with bare white knuckles, listening intently to her accuser.”

When using metaphors and symbolism in this way, be careful to avoid cliches.

Tips For Writing About Psychological Pain

Writing about psychological pain
Flashbacks are a technique to show psychological pain

Psychological pain should take a mental and emotional toll on your character, as it would in real life. psychological pain can drive a person to madness if not addressed correctly. It wouldn’t make sense for a mother to have her child wrenched from her arms without some appropriate reaction. She would react instantly, and the repercussions of what happened should reverberate when she is still kept from her child days later.

Flashbacks are a technique to show psychological pain. Just quick little “scenes” interwoven in the narrative can convey deep psychological pain. Other narrative techniques include passing comments or actions from strangers. In the example above, the mother could be in a busy mall, overhearing another woman scolding her child for wandering off. “Stay by my side, I don’t want you to get lost!” The reader will know how much this triggers your character.

Balancing your character’s internal and external reactions to psychological pain is important. They may struggle internally, which you can show by their actions. But if they’re getting a release from pain inwardly, then their outward struggle would be lessened, and vice versa.

Levels of Pain

Pain levels range from mild to moderate to severe, whether you’re writing about emotional, physical or psychological pain. You may need to use nuance to write about mild pain and strong language to convey severe pain.

  • Mild pain: The vaccine jab was over before it started; nothing more than a pinprick sensation.
  • Moderate pain: It felt odd to pack up her belongings, like putting her in a box to be forgotten on a shelf.
  • Severe pain: He braced himself against the door frame and whispered. It was all he could manage as he slid down the wall, trying to hold his insides from slipping out through the gaping wound.

What Happens When the Pain Gets Too Much?

You can show the pain levels and kind of pain by how your character reacts. How do your characters react when the pain gets to be too much? Giving your characters different pain tolerances is a good way to differentiate them from others. For example, a Jack Reacher-type hero may be strong and smart enough to treat a gunshot after a fight scene and then take down a villain. However, it’d be unrealistic to expect the same from a child or elderly person.

Your characters will have different pain thresholds, like people do in real life. You could play one character off another. One character could collapse under psychological pain while the other one holds strong.

Examples From Famous Literary Works

The Road

In the post-apocalyptic book “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, a father and his son traverse a dystopian terrain where lawlessness and dangers lie everywhere. To demonstrate the psychological pain, McCarthy paints a picture of the landscape:

“On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind…Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.”

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Road
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02/18/2024 07:25 am GMT

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath famously wrote of her own psychological pain, eventually deciding to end her own life. In “The Bell Jar,” Plath uses a metaphor to describe her painful feelings:

“Girls like that make me sick. I’m so jealous I can’t speak. Nineteen years, and I hadn’t been out of New England except for this trip to New York. It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water.”

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
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02/18/2024 03:26 pm GMT

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, is a bittersweet tale of love, pain and loss. Green writes about pain and suffering with great empathy and sensitivity, without even mentioning the pain:

“It was a long list. The world contains a lot of dead people. And while Patrick droned on, reading the list from a sheet of paper because it was too long to memorize, I kept my eyes closed, trying to think prayerfully but mostly imagining the day when my name would find its way onto that list, all the way at the end when everyone had stopped listening.”

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
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02/19/2024 09:15 pm GMT

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