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?

  • 3
    Perhaps there are exercises that would help in this? Maybe you can also bring this to our Tuesday writing exercise chat. Mar 18, 2013 at 16:48

10 Answers 10


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.

  • 4
    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, 2013 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, 2013 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. Mar 27, 2013 at 17:27
  • isn't this the "show, not tell" advice? Show how your body reacts to the pain, rather than telling how you feel it?
    – Ooker
    Oct 30, 2015 at 12:56
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    @Ooker The problem isn't "showing" the reaction to pain versus "telling". It's showing the right reaction, the reaction that will best convey what you want the audience to feel in that moment; have you been intense enough? Subtle enough? Brutal enough? Feb 7, 2017 at 23:43

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.

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?


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.

  • 1
    This is a brilliant answer. Adds a new dimension to it completely. Mar 26, 2013 at 9:29
  • J.K. Rowling makes a great deal of money. This does not make her a great novelist.
    – user6394
    Dec 7, 2013 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. Dec 7, 2013 at 18:28

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.

  • 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 :) Mar 19, 2013 at 6:06

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.


Don't use boring things like

  1. She was so sad, she had felt like she was going to die and fall asleep forever.

instead use,

  1. She was too depressed for her body to handle. She felt like there was a weight on her shoulders and it got heavier, and heavier every single day until she snapped like a twig.

make it interesting, make it so the reader/writer can understand and relate to it.

  • 1
    This answer would be more helpful when it would describe why the second is better, what writing techniques you used to create it and how they work.
    – Philipp
    Apr 18, 2016 at 17:28

Excruciating pain shot through me, setting me on fire.

  • Lily, welcome to Writers. We're looking for answers longer than just one line; perhaps you could expand on this? Sep 25, 2015 at 6:35

It is hard to describe great pain if you've never felt it yourself.

It is better to write scenes like this in an omniscient POV, because you can focus both on the feeling itself and on what is happening. If you were in a first-person POV, the focus would be more on the pain. Here are two examples:

  • Then the knife slashed at my arm. Pain erupted, blocking my vision. My arm felt like it was on fire, and my head spun. I could barely see what the man standing above me was doing. My eyes rolled back in my head and I gave a deep, guttural roar of pain.

  • Then the knife cut through his right arm. He writhed, roaring with pain on the ground. The man above him laughed and wiped the knife clean, ready for a more fatal stab. His eyes rolled back in his head and he gave the loudest roar of all, a shout that shook the walls.

As you can see, with option one, there is a more blind perspective of the situation that leaves out the key details, of, for example, the man readying the knife. Option two, however, gives a more broad overview of both the man's and the rest of the perspectives and feelings.


My advice to you is don't write about pain if you don't know pain. I would never have included so much pain in my stories back before I felt the torture of pain's company every day. Remembering pain won't help you either--it has to be with you now, inside you, gripping you. We are biologically programmed to forget pain once it has passed.

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