I write dark stories.
If you’ve been reading my serial story Eyes, which I’ve been posting every other Monday for quite a while now and will be wrapping up shortly, you probably know this.
A lot of my stories involve pain and hurt and loss. I don’t do it because those things please me or because I’m some sort of sadist. Usually, when I write the pain of a character I’ve developed and invested myself into, it’s hard. It hurts me as much as it hurts them. Part of that is due to the fact that… well… they’re in my head and so hurting them is literally hurting me.
Beyond that, however, I’ve also struggled to write that pain well. I’ve witnessed many other writers (published and not) struggle with that same thing.
The thing is… pain is hard. It’s hard to write true pain and make it hurt the reader to read without making them put the book down. A few weeks ago I posted about Saving Private Ryan, and why I thought it was such a powerful movie and why I feel that all the pain and violence portrayed in it was right and why I feel all authors should consider the violence and pain in their novels under the light of that idea.
A good friend of mine wrote a blog post on pain a few months back, and it was an excellent blog post. He wrote about showing the pain, rather than telling. This friend and I chatted a few weeks ago, and we critiqued each other’s works. One of my excerpts that he critiqued involved a scene with a lot of pain (a character is flogged), and we realized, as we read over it, that I used the word “pain” twelve or thirteen times in the span of seven pages.
I literally told the reader that there was pain involved in this flogging thirteen times.
See, I’m not a perfect writer, either.
So today, I want to draw on that idea, as well as my friend’s post and my own struggles with overcoming this block, to find ways to write about pain without just stating that it’s present.
Step One: Find and Delete
Most of us write using word processors that have this handy “find” tool, where you can find any word or phrase or letter or character you want. It’s a fantastic tool. So here’s what we’re gonna do. In order to show pain for what it is, we’re going to systematically go through the manuscript looking for the word “pain” in all its forms. I do this when I edit my first draft, so keep this in mind: let yourself write the word “pain” in your first draft. Rough drafts are meant to get the ideas out of your head and into the page, not to make things perfect. That’s what the find tool is for.
Now. Our goal is to remove as many of those “pain” words as possible. Remember: you can’t get rid of them all. There are instances and cases where the word “pain” is necessary. Use it in dialogue, and use it when there’s no time to show us the pain and when it’s used for stylistic emphasis or something along those lines. Got it?
When the word is just used to describe itself, that’s when you’ve got a problem. That scene I mentioned earlier, with thirteen uses of the word in seven pages? Well, when I edited it, I ended up with three.
Therefore, it’s possible to do this. In the first two-thirds of my novel Agram Awakens, I use the word “pain” and its derivatives ~180 times. That’s not counting the last third, which definitely has that word in there a few more times. Out of 202,911 words, 200 of them are the word “pain”, or something like it.
My goal is to cut that in half, if possible. To get rid of all the times when “pain” is used to describe itself.
I think that’s an easy goal to attain. Shall we do it together? Let’s all band together and decide today that our goal for second drafts is to cut the number of times “pain” is used in half.
But… what do we replace it with?
Step Two: The Reality of Pain
Authors like to compare pain to other things. We like to make pain appear on the page as an entity. Whether it’s “burning” or “lancing” or “waves of pain” or “needles” or “pinpricks” or “fiery” or whatever it is the kids are saying these days, we give the pain a modifier that makes it a separate entity from everything else.
What’s wrong with this?
Well, let’s consider what pain really is. It’s your nerves responding to stimuli. That’s it. Your brain and the nerves it hangs out with are reacting to stimulation. This stimulation can range from petting a cat to licking an ice cream cone to being stabbed in the stomach. Why do some of these cause pain, and some don’t? And why do some of them cause pain and pleasure at the same time?
Basically, pain is caused when the brain and nerves decide that the stimulation is dangerous to the body. Petting a cat doesn’t cause pain (all allergies aside) because your brain doesn’t find anything wrong with that stimulation. It’s pleasant, relaxing, soft. But when the cat starts kneading your thigh with its claws?
Immediate reaction. You might not even register the pain until you yank the cat off your lap and squeak. The sudden and piercing stimulation of the cat’s claws are perceived as a danger. They’re cutting into your skin, killing cells and providing openings for bacteria. Your brain and nerves recognize this as not okay, and so stimulate you to react. Fast.
Licking an ice cream cone activates the nerves connected to your taste buds and your brain goes “hmmm, I like this taste”. So you lick it again. And again. And again. Soon your brain realizes “OH THIS IS COLD THIS IS NOT OKAY” and reacts to get you to stop. The result is a “brain freeze”, or whatever you so choose to call it.
Now. From the looks of it, it’s clear that pain is not a separate entity. It is not cold or hot or lancing or needle-like. It’s an electronic impulse traveling through tiny threads of organic matter through your body.
How then, do we describe pain?
Here’s the deal: pain is nothing in and of itself. There is no such thing as pain for pain’s sake. There is always a cause. Even psychological disorders where the person feels pain or sickness without physical symptoms are not pain for pain’s sake. They’re a malfunctioning of nerves in the brain, whether that’s hyperactivity or lack of activity.
Pain is always caused by some outside factor. In the above examples, the pain is caused when the cat decides to sink its claws into your flesh, when the cold from the ice cream becomes unbearable, and when the knife sort of… cuts you.
If the pain is simply a chemical and electrical reaction in your body, what can we describe?
The cause. You don’t have to describe the pain if you describe the cause well enough that the readers imagine it happening to themselves. Describe the tanned curve of the claws, the pop as they break through your jeans, and the silent sinking into your thigh, followed by the knee-jerk reaction that sends the confused and insulted cat to the floor where they stare miffed at you as you rub your leg before they trot off, wagging their tail like they meant to stab you.
Describe the muffled squelch of the knife making contact with your insides, the tickle of cold steel where steel isn’t meant to be, followed by the slow scrape as the knife is pulled free. The warmth of blood on your stomach and the trembling of your hands as you attempt to hold it in. Let your readers see the contortion of your face, the black flecks and swirls of color obscuring your vision, the roiling of your stomach and tightening of your chest. The difficulty in heaving in air, the slow drop to your knees. Sluggish thoughts and drooping eyelids. Each breath makes you shudder, your hands fall to your lap before you force them up again, attempting to keep yourself inside of you. Trembling, all over. Trembling.
We’ll imagine the pain.
Step Three: Remembering the Purpose
What is the purpose of pain? To show the conflict between right and wrong and the glory of the victory when it’s achieved. Don’t write pain just to have pain.
Let pain fuel your story, propel it forward. Then, when you’ve done that, you can edit it.
Then, after who knows how many edits, you’ll have it: pain that means something, that causes your reader to feel it directly. Pain that works for your story, and works well.