Writing In Pain: 11 Top Tips For Your Fiction

Writing in pain as part of storytelling can be difficult, but these 11 tips will help you convey pain in a way readers understand and agree with.

When your character experiences pain, whether emotional pain or physical pain, conveying the character’s pain is challenging. You must be able to convey what the character experiences in a way readers regard as credible. Good writing helps readers relate to a character and empathize with their pain, without experiencing it!

When engaged in creative writing, how can you describe or write about pain accurately? Well, it’s a common human experience, so use your own experiences. If you want to convey pain from your character’s point-of-view (POV), these tips will help you do just that.

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1. Use Appropriate Words To Describe Any Kind Of Pain

Writing in pain

Reflecting on your personal experience. You most likely have had mild pain experiences like a headache or a sore foot. These experiences break past your pain threshold and rank below a 5 on the pain scale. You notice these pains, but they don’t prevent you from going about your daily life.

If your characters have mild pain, use mild words to describe it. Stiff, smart, stinging and pinching can all work to describe these types of pains. For emotional reactions, words like twinge, ache and regretful fit. Stephen King regularly gives his characters headaches and hangovers, in part because he’s a recovering alcoholic and knows what it’s like.

2. Humanize Characters With Ailments

Moderate pain like a migraine can humanize a character without becoming a feature of your story or plot.

For this type of pain, you could say they’re experiencing a flare-up from an old wound, like when your detective hero was shot years ago. If it’s a mild emotional mild plain, they may think back to a difficult experience as part of a flashback that drives the story forward. Then, they get on with the job, and the plot progresses.

3. Use Extreme Pain As A Plot Device

Writing in pain
For severe pain, use strong words, language and emotions

Experiences that sits on the extremity of the pain scale put your character in mortal danger. It’s pain they can’t ignore. It’s debilitating. They’ve broken a bone or are bleeding and in danger.

For severe pain, use strong words, language and emotions. Agony and suffering are appropriate here. Stabbing or torment can also work to convey the message. Employ each of the five senses if possible.

To further explore the words that you can use to describe different pain levels, consider searching a thesaurus for synonyms for pain.

4. Give Character’s Different Pain Tolerances

Consider giving each of your characters a different pain tolerance, so they’re more realistic. 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.

5. Show Pain In Action

If a character breaks a bone, show the reader it hurts. Let your characters feel pain and overcome it in ways that make sense for them. That’s what good writing does.

For instance, if your character breaks their arm in chapter one, and another character bumps it in chapter two, you could talk about the jarring blast of pain stopping them in their tracks. That’s more effective than writing about length about the pain itself. A good piece of writing advice is to mention the pain about once per scene or less.

6. Let Characters Work Through Pain

If a character breaks a bone in chapter three, don’t forget about it in chapter four. If a character with the broken arm needs to open a door, you could write,

She clumsily grabbed the handle with her right hand, leaving her injured left arm hanging at her side limply.

Here, the writer avoided descriptors to suggest pain, but they reminded the reader about pain by implying it. Showing the character working around any kind of pain keeps it in the mind of readers, without overdoing it.

7. Use Pain Appropriately

Many writers describe pain too frequently, intensely or as a cliché. Even if pain is all-consuming for your characters, your readers get bogged down if you overdo it. Consider this example:

The bullet tore through his leg, causing him to stumble. The seeing pain burned through his leg, up his body, and through his head. It exploded in a blinding sea of white, making him dizzy so that he almost passed out. The pain was so intense, he felt as though his entire body was on fire. It was almost as though his leg was no longer there, rather being replaced with a burning hot poker.

This is clearly a descriptive paragraph about the character’s pain, but it is too much. Most readers will no longer want to read after the first or second sentence. Shorten the sentence and as a fellow writer to help you make it descriptive, but short.

8. Give A Character Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a unique type of pain to write about, and it can be central to the character development. Remember, chronic pain is a constant. Refer to it when sensible bue don’t overdo it.

When a character has chronic pain, consider using it as a background to the action. Does the character rub his arthritic hands at the end of the day? Does the ache remind him of his age as he goes to work in the morning?

By weaving these kinds of details into the story, without belaboring the point, you can make the pain an important plot point without bogging down your readers.

9. Write About Emotional Pain

Inner pain, turmoil and even spiritual agony can give your characters and their stories more depth. Often writers employ an emotional pain, like grief, to show readers what’s going on inside of a character’s head. Convey this in when writing fiction by drawing your personal life or experiences. Mark Twain wrote about grief:

Nothing that grieves us can be called little; by the external laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.

10. Research Your Character’s Ailments

To write well about pain, you must understand it. If a character suffers an injury or pain condition in your story, take time to research that injury, what it feels like and what recovery is like. Otherwise, readers will see through weak writing.

Read up on Healthline about the common symptoms of an ailment and learn what people experience. Take notes when a family member or friend complains about a pain you’re unfamiliar with. This strategy will help you create realistic descriptions of the pain your characters experience in your story.

11. Focus On Consequences Of An Injury

Serious injuries should have consequences for your characters, like a limp or time spent in recovery. It’s always laughable when a Jack Bauer-type character gets shot in episode and then runs around saving the day in the next one.

For instance, a broken left arm may render your character speechless when it happens. It’s fine for your character to scream, grunt or groan about a broken bone in the moment. But what is the result of a stationary arm later on? Perhaps they must drive a car one-handed to an action or crime scene? Similarly, you could write about an alcoholic in pain by including a scene about them at an AA meeting.

Like this article? Check out our companion guide to writer’s cramp.


  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.