Hey there! This is a part of a series on pain and suffering in writing. Part 1 of the series, Writing About Pain (Without Putting Your Readers in Agony), appeared on the eminent and excellent blog WritersHelpingWriters. Thanks again to Angela for having me on her blog!
I got a great follow-up question the other day from a-nom-de-plume, who asked:
Do you have any tips on writing pain from an outside perspective? As
in, not the point of view of the unfortunate suffering character. What
external signs do people show when they’re in extreme pain?
I love this question, because it speaks to one of the “fundamental rules” of storytelling.
This is the show don’t tell
method of discussing and illustrating pain. It’s very useful for
demonstrating pain of characters outside the direct viewpoint of the
There’s also a medical terminology distinction to be made. Subjective things, like the actual pain itself, are symptoms.
They’re things patients feel, not what providers can observe. Anything
verifiable or observable by someone else is considered a sign.
example, in a first-person story, these descriptors (signs) would be
very useful for showing agony in someone who isn’t your protagonist.
Similarly, in a third-person-close perspective, this could describe your
characters who aren’t the current subject of the close point of view.
I’ll try to keep this to the same pain scale that I used in that article.
Signs of Pain
Mild: Rubbing a stiff joint, flexing a sore muscle, limping, massaging, moving stiffly
behavior that is often seen with pain is someone constantly moving the
affected area not to try to make it better, but to make sure it still
Moderate: Grunting, hissing, sharply
inhaling, wincing, guarding (protecting that area with a limb; for
example, using a good arm to cradle the bad, or holding an arm across
the stomach), severe limping.
Severe: Sweating, pale and cool skin, facial contortions, clutching the affected area, rapid breathing.
Obliterating: Everything from Severe,
plus lying on the ground, screaming, curling into the fetal position.
Patients in this amount of pain may ask for their mothers. I have
personally screamed “Why” and seriously considered the possibility of
demons when my gallstones have become obliteratingly painful.
Other Ways to Demonstrate Pain
are other ways to demonstrate a character’s discomfort that don’t
necessarily commit to any one particular level on the pain scale.
- taking pain medication, or asking if anyone has some in a group setting
- wrapping or re-wrapping an injury
- using a sling for an injured arm
- applying cold packs (new injury) or hot packs (chronic injury)
- massaging the injured area
- going for accupuncture or accupressure
- taking a break from an activity they could have otherwise completed
- calling a halt on a walk or stopping a current activity to “walk it off” or take a rest
- changing how they perform a task (like trying to write or change gears in a car with their non-dominant hand)
- constantly fidgeting and touching the affected area
may sometimes forget that they’re injured, try to do something, and
then immediately stop and wince and grab the part they moved (eg: with a
shoulder strain, they may try to reach out for something or turn their
head and immediately stop, wince, and rub the area)
There’s More Out There
This list is far from exhaustive. But it’s a good start to illustrating someone’s discomfort!
I hope this answered your question, @a-nom-de-plume, and I’ll gladly see you later!
xoxo, Aunt Scripty
Writing About Pain Part 2: External Signs