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I've noticed something in writing: it's difficult to convey pain, and even specific types of pain, to an audience who's comfortably sitting at home in an easy chair.

I can hardly imagine pain until I'm injured myself, in fact. The sting of freezing never hits home until I find myself on a mountain slope. I've no problem with the situational tension, but conveying the suffering (sharp or aching, burning or freezing, immediate or escalating) seems to be harder.

What techniques can I use to really make the audience empathetic? What's proven to be the most effective? Something prose-based? Reactionary? Who writes pain extremely well?

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Perhaps there are exercises that would help in this? Maybe you can also bring this to our Tuesday writing exercise chat. –  Neil Fein Mar 18 '13 at 16:48
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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Take notes when you're suffering for later use.

No really. Get into the habit of carrying something to jot down your thoughts on (phone, tablet, moleskine notebook, marbled notebook, whatever) and when you're feeling something intense, write it down. Describe it. In the moment, write down all the things you're feeling, no matter how repetitive or hallucinatory.

This will teach you (a) observational skills (b) the habit of putting nonverbal things into words. As you get better at noticing and then describing how it feels when the wind blows through your soul on a cold mountaintop, and your thighs are prickling as they turn numb and your sinuses ache dully at the bridge of your nose and your scarf is wet and slimy from the condensation of your breath and your lungs feel like they're stabbed every time you inhale, you won't have to struggle so much to come up with ways to make your reader feel the cold.

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This is great advice, and brings up the benefit of describing something you know: you will be able to mention the little, highly evocative things (sinuses, etc.) that might not occur to someone who hasn't experienced the cold wind, but help everyone imagine it. –  Anna M Mar 18 '13 at 13:02
    
I'll go with this answer (though I liked and appreciated everyone's comments and it's hard to pick just one-- thank you everyone!). For academic purposes, I'm adding my own thoughts as an answer as well since I've thought of new things since posing this question last week. –  ElizaWy Mar 23 '13 at 0:08
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Alternatively, in the event no pain happens conveniently to you (and I hope this this is the case), talking to others might help - friends who recently broke a bone, etc. Keep in mind that recent pain is better; memory of pain can fade. –  Neil Fein Mar 27 '13 at 17:27
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Hurt yourself.

No, really, go out and hurt yourself. But don't kill yourself. There's a lot of fun things to do that will cause your body to hate you later, like working out for 2 hours. The advantage this gives you is you'll be able to feel the pain more immediately, and when you're out to write your book, it will be much more personal.

But here's an important thing -- don't hurt yourself for the sake of the book. It's much better to hurt yourself for the sake of hurting yourself, if the process of doing so is fun. If you play basketball, you wont feel your body hating you while you play, but later on it will hurt -- but you were having too much fun to notice. If your objective is external to you, like writing a book, you might not learn as much as when your objective is internal, like enjoying the activity while you're in the moment.

As a general rule, I point out the evidence of pain instead of the pain itself. If you have a broken arm, it's better to say "the bone is sticking out from the elbow" rather than "the pain of the bone sticking out of the elbow is really bad." If it's freezing, it's better to say that your fingernails are getting blue and your breath is fogging in your face, rather than saying it's really freezing. What Lauren said about the sinuses is really good, too. Those evidences are what you should be looking for when you're describing something.

Of course, the goal should be to describe the sensation in as few words as possible (at least, for me personally). No need to write your nails are blue, your breath is fogging, your sinuses are clogging, and it's freezing outside. That's overkill. You just need to write the bare minimum so you can spend more time on your story.

The writing style also really helps this out. If your writing style sounds formal like Harry Potter, it will be much harder to describe pain than, say, something like this: "It didn't matter if Jack was the defending MMA champion or a newbie recruit. When she shot that needle into his arm, he fucking felt it."

Although swearing may not be to your best advantage when writing a book. But I'm just putting it out there.

Follow up-

You might notice the same difficulty when writing a fast-paced fight scene. If you're already good at writing fight scenes, you should be good at writing about physical pain. Just ask yourself the question, what can I say about this pain that will make the reader squeamish?

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The key to communicate enough pain lies in establishing such empathy among your readers that they become sensitive enough to feel pain by reading you. Ever heard about Harry Potter success story?

I don't know whether you've heard about the craze, but I've seen people literally crying with grief when JKR killed a fictional character (Sirius Black) in her fourth Harry Potter novel. That is how great novelists establish rapport and empathy through their writings in all ages, be it the 16th or 21st century. So, to answer your question, its all about the little details of how you go about your literature - the introduction, plots, friendships and quarrels, struggles, gravity of situation - all these start creating a perception in your readers' minds, and this perception ultimately decides how sensitive or empathic they are towards your writings.

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This is a brilliant answer. Adds a new dimension to it completely. –  markovchain Mar 26 '13 at 9:29
    
J.K. Rowling makes a great deal of money. This does not make her a great novelist. –  user6394 Dec 7 '13 at 5:50
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@Pyotr - Whether she's a "great" writer is certainly not something that can be quantified. What cannot be disputed is that her books are popular and they resonate with a lot of people. So her writing is effective for some. –  Neil Fein Dec 7 '13 at 18:28
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I'm answering this myself as well, because after mulling it over for a week I've come up with some thoughts not yet mentioned, and I'd like to flush this topic out. Who knows-- it might be helpful.

  1. Let the reader handle the pain part. Write what physically happened (works best in an omniscient POV), and the reader can fill in their own blanks. Simply saying that someone's fingernail was removed will shake people all on its own. The tender skin beneath need not be agonized over in every case.
  2. Reactionary. Describe pain through the actions of the character. There are outward signs of pain, and the difference between a normally lively character to someone who will not move will worry a reader if your characterization is strong enough.
  3. After-effects / non-reactionary results. For a more subtle pain, what steps are needed to cure it can be detailed instead. Jumping from doubling over to next-day post-surgery is jarring, and evokes very strong associations.
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You could always volunteer with your local medical or fire rescue service. They always need the support. Not only would this give you exposure to real people in need, but to the others who support them. Frankly, most of us don't have that much exposure to emergency situations. Even if you don't join, talk to someone about doing a ride along.

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You have surely felt pain at some time in the past. Think back to what it was like. What thoughts went through your head?

Two concrete suggestions:

-1- Use metaphors or some form of poetic language. I write non-fiction so I don't claim to be good at this, but which of these do you think is more effective:

(a) When he was stabbed, it hurt really bad. He had trouble breathing.

(b) When he was stabbed, it felt like a fire raging through his chest. The air rushed out of his lungs and he struggled to get a breath, like he was a hundred feet under water.

-2- Take your time. Build up to it. Make sure we care about the character first, so that his pain matters. Drag out the description of the pain. In real life when I've felt physical pain I've often thought that it dragged on forever. So don't just say, "It hurt really bad. When he got over it he went to the store."

This isn't entirely the same thing but I recall a novel I read once where a character is introduced and then it's revealed that her husband? boyfriend? whatever recently died and she is upset to the point of suicide. But as I read the story, this character was introduced and then like two pages later the reader is expected to feel deep sympathy for her loss. I'm sorry, but I just didn't. Intellectually I can certainly appreciate that such a loss could be very upsetting, but with no build up, I just didn't care about the character. You can't just say, "Then I met a woman named Jane. She was dying of cancer and was in a lot of pain." The reader won't care. You need to tell us enough about Jane first that we start to think of her as someone we know and like before we're going to care about her pain.

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This is good advice, but I think the examples of (a) and (b) are both equal. (b) is just a dragged on version of (a), and if anything, you don't want to drag anything on. It's non-value-adding. Metaphors are good, but most of the time a reader cant imagine a fire raging in their chest, or being a hundred feet under water. It's much better to point out things readers can relate to :) –  markovchain Mar 19 '13 at 6:06
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