5

So, I was doing a writing excersie, I came up with, to help me with sentence structuring and developing my style. One thing, I ran into, however, was that I couldn't describe pain very well.

The knight sunk the sword into the dragon’s chest. Gyvaris jolted back, his eyes widened in horror as he peered down. The sword was still lodged into him, painted crimson by his gushing blood. Just how far did it go? His stomach twisted. He felt heat, heat that mixed with cold as it pierced deep into him. Too deep. Then it hit him. Gyvaris screamed louder than ever before in his life. He collapsed on his side, sending another wave of agony through him. His body was waving as it grasped for oxygen. His air sacs must have been punctured and now they were filling up with blood. The pain became more unbearable and the cold just grew with the puddle of his own blood. Why? Why did he have to end up like that? Why did he have to live through this? Why? He just wanted it to be over. He just wanted to die.

I'm not exactly proud of it.

Before you ask, no! I'm not going to mutilate myself nor pretend that stepping on a piece of Lego is as painful as having your leg torn off.

Yet I want to somewhat realistically portray suffering, both physical and mental.

I usually work with more focus on the mental aspect as that seems to help with sympathy, which in terms amplifies the effect of the physical aspect.

I decided to listen to a TED talk while editing the snippet in LibreOffice. It was about a lady who was almost stabbed to death with a machete. When she said she feels like people would never truly understand her, any mustered up courage went down the drain on my part.

I know how to collect info on what it feels like to be impaled with a HB pencil, and as a writer I have to be familiar with everything, but I'm still unsure how long does my already short creative license extend here. Sure, dragon physiology can be a neat excuse but still.

How can I describe pain, I never lived through, in-depth without coming off as disingenuous?

Note: This question is focusing more on making the description of pain and injury feel natural, be it external or internal.

Update

Since I received a lot of tips, I decided to create an edited version of the snippet for demonstration.

The knight sunk the sword into the dragon’s chest. Gyvaris jolted back, his eyes widened in horror as he peered down. The sword was still lodged into him only the crossguard sticking out, painted crimson by his gushing blood. Just how far did it go? His stomach twisted. He felt heat, heat that mixed with cold as it pierced deep into him. Too deep. Trembling, he fell on his haunches, then it hit him. Gyvaris screamed louder than ever before in his life. He collapsed on his side. Blood squirted from the wound. Gyvaris writhed on the ground, clawing and kicking at the knight, tearing up grass and unlucky wildflowers with his spaded tail. Gritting teeth he rolled on his belly and pushed himself up. His legs buckled and he fell back. His body was waving as it grasped for oxygen. Yet, after each breath he took, each step he made up, he was pulled down further. The pain became more unbearable and the cold grew with the puddle of his own blood. His vision blurred, whether from his tears, he didn’t know. Someone shouted in the distance, or nearby? He couldn’t tell. Why? Why did he have to end up like this? Why did he have to suffer this? Why?

I tried to create a strong image with this. Since punctured lungs aren't as visual as a beheading, I tried to capture Gyv's confusion and hopeless struggle.

  • While your question is about narration and this question is about dialogue, it's still basically a duplicate. Please take a look at this question and see if it answers yours. If not, please focus yours very specifically on what's missing. Thanks! writing.stackexchange.com/questions/41897/… – Cyn Sep 22 at 20:35
  • @Cyn Is it better now? – Mephistopheles Sep 22 at 20:49
  • 2
    Could you say how your question is different from the one I linked to? – Cyn Sep 22 at 23:26
  • 3
    @Cyn: As I understand it, that other question is about the outside experience (describing what you observe—specifically in dialogue—when someone else feels pain). While this question is about the inside perspective (describing the experience of pain itself). – celtschk Sep 23 at 4:56
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of Showing that a character is in pain in a dialogue – JP Chapleau Sep 23 at 13:17
11

When I don't know how to do something, I look for examples of how somebody else did it. Here's an example from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. The main character, a wizard, had a kinetic shield spell ready, while the enemies came with a flamethrower. Turns out shield doesn't stop heat:

It hurt. Oh, God, it hurt. The fingers of my left hand were the first to feel it, and then my palm and wrist, all in the space of a second. If you've never been burned, you can't imagine the pain. And my fingers, where millions of tactile nerves were able to send panicked damage-messages to my brain, felt as if they had simply exploded and been replaced with howling agony.
I jerked my hand back, and felt my focus waver, the shield start to fade. I gritted my teeth, and somehow managed to dig up the strength to extend my hand again, hardening the shield and my will. I backed away in shuffling half steps, my mind almost drowning in pain, desperately keeping the shield up.
[...]
I saw blisters rising on my left hand. I felt my fingers curling into a claw. They looked thinner, as if made of melting wax, and I could see the shadows of my bones beneath the flesh.
Jim Butcher, Blood Rites, chapter 33

There are several things going on here.

First, there's what is happening. A man's hand is being burnt. You think of that, it makes you shiver. And there's detail: the fingers curling involuntarily, the flesh melting away from the bone. Your thought is made to linger on that uncomfortable shiver. You imagine the pain, you don't even need to be told that it hurts - you know it does.

Second, we are told that it's painful: "it hurt", "my mind almost drowning in pain". Such statements are empty on their own - we've heard them too often. But within the picture already created, they support the overall structure. They are like the cerebral part of the mind registering that "it hurts".

Third, "Oh God". This is the cry of pain that escapes one's lips, the loss of control. It's almost an involuntary reaction, very familiar to anyone who's experienced any sudden pain. It's an accent, and a signal.

Fourth, there is the description: "my fingers, where millions of tactile nerves were able to send panicked damage-messages to my brain, felt as if they had simply exploded and been replaced with howling agony". One image. You don't want more than one - it becomes confusing and repetitive. That one image makes the reader linger for a moment on imagining the pain - while they're reading this description, they cannot move on. This image needs to be sufficiently imaginative and brief - otherwise boredom sets in, we lose sympathy for the character. And again, it cannot stand on its own.

Do you need all those elements? Definitely not. They are tools you can use. And there are other tools, such as the physiological reaction to pain (dizziness, nausea, etc.)

The most important thing is, you don't need to describe pain. You need your readers to imagine pain. Those aren't quite the same thing. Sometimes less description, less detail, can do the trick - you give the reader enough, and let them fill in the blanks. In particular, it's very hard to imagine "abstract" pain. One imagines a particular kind of pain (burns feel differently from blunt trauma, for instance) in a particular organ. So before you describe pain, you need to paint the picture of what's going on. Once you've done that, the reader's imagination will do half the work for you. We're wired to empathise.

(Which by the way makes the task of describing a non-humanoid's pain harder - I do not intuitively feel what wings or air sacks feel like. You'd have to do the work for me - compare the sensation to something I know better. Sure, air sacks are like lungs, I understand that. But I don't feel that, unless you evoke some sensation - being unable to get enough air, or something similar.)

  • Why am I not surprised to find Dresden Files in these answers – Andrey Sep 24 at 14:09
5

Show the visible effects of the pain. Let the reader feel it.

I think the issue is that you're being sidetracked into trying to describe the feeling of pain. Pain is a very subjective feeling. It is so subjective that in the medical profession they try to ascertain the degree of pain by either asking the patient to choose from a spectrum of emoticons, or to give it a number between 0 and 10. Only then they ask precise question on whether it is a stinging pain, a pulsing pain and so forth: oftentimes the patient is unable to properly characterize their pain besides its intensity, despite external suggestions from the physician.

While the feeling of pain may be taken to the grave by the one experiencing it, the outcome on their actions and looks is very much objective. Regardless of whether a pain is the worst of one's life, the feeling of it may cause one to recoil, to squirm, to scream or to even madly fight back in a primordial attempt to get rid of the cause.

Even if you haven't experienced the pain, you are somehow familiar to the reaction to pain. You would easily identify whether a living being is hurt. It is that information that you need to give to the reader. Actually, it would be a great success if you manage to stab the Dragon and make the reader feel its pain, without using the word 'pain'

For instance, if we tried to show a dragon in pain, like an outgrown lizard in pain:

the Dragon howled with a shriek that shook the cave. It raised its eyes to the sky, and pointing at the knight, it snorted, steaming from the open mouth, but not a flame came out of it. It clasped the bottom of the cave with its claws, scarring the granite, twitching and splashing in its fuming blood.

1

I don’t feel that you have to experience intense near-death pain, describe it and be concerned that it would disingenuous. Why? Because your point of view is omniscient subjective. You are the narrator and the voice of the story. In my opinion, your paragraph does an excellent job telling us from your point of view as narrator what Gyvaris may be experiencing and thinking while the knight impales Gyvaris.

On the other hand, what if you were writing this story in Gyvaris’ point of view as opposed to your point of view as a narrator? In that case, you would narrate from Gyvaris’ point of view and convey the experience through Gyvaris’ action, thoughts, feeling and speech.

In either case the experience is written in context to the point of view. Again, in my opinion, I like what you have already. The only changes I might suggest is changing the first sentence. If it has been established who the knight is, at this point in time, in the story, then use the knight’s name. It seems like we know that Gyvaris is the dragon, so use Gyvaris name instead of dragon. First sentence could read like this:

Sir Debin sunk his sword deep into Gyvaris’s chest.

Also you make good use of some pattern of motivation reaction units too in the paragraph. I like that. Good job.

0

In college English class, we were assigned Write to the Point by Bill Stott. He has a chapter on this, which I'm probably badly paraphrasing: just describe what happens. Like you would anything else.

He compares two writing samples, one about waiting in a dentist office with unbearable tooth pain, and the other about a mountain man who has to pull his own painful tooth. He breaks it down, and goes over what works and what doesn't in each passage.

Support you were writing about water. Is it a frozen arctic glacier, crystal and blue? Is it a rushing torrent, churning and foaming over rocks?

Does your character have a migraine? Are they in bed, lying perfectly still, while vibrations of pain emanate from their head? Did they break their ankle on stage, collapse to the floor with a throbbing floppy mess on the end of their leg?

I think your passage is pretty good. The only thing I would change is the superlative: "... than ever before in his life." But I think you have a good start.

Edit also, I don't think many people in the world today have lived through a sword-stabbing, so nobody can really call you on your description of it ; )

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.