How to Write Pain in Dialogue (4 Levels of Pain)

In this post, we discuss ideas surrounding how to write pain in dialogue.

Suffering is essential to the craft of writing; it is the source of our most potent metaphors and our most reflective, moving, and compelling words. One of the most common concerns writers have is how to depict suffering in their writing in a way that evokes genuine empathy from the audience, keeps them interested, and avoids going too far where it undermines the story's credibility.

The characters we write about experience suffering because, just like us, they also go through hardships. In most cases, compelling writing will reflect both emotional and physical suffering. It adds fuel to the fire of the drama, raises the stakes, and presents the protagonist with yet another challenge to overcome before they can reach their glorious climax.

Why is it difficult to read about suffering?

The pain was like fire burning her legs. She moaned in pain. It went off in her mind like a bomb, leaving her with a terrifying void. It made my stomach turn. She showed signs of trembling. As if her leg had been frozen and a bolt of lightning had struck her body from head to toe, the pain was described as feeling "like a hot, sharp knife, covered in salt, slicing through her skin and into her muscles and bones."

The characters in your books may be driven mad by the agony they're experiencing. But, on the other hand, it might be boring for your audience. You probably stopped reading that paragraph somewhere in the middle.

You can explain, exaggerate, or ignore the pain that your character is experiencing and express it all in a manner that is both more accurate and more interesting.

This comes in handy when differentiating between different types of pain and determining the most accurate way to describe each one.

Different Levels of Pain in Written Works

Low

Your character experiences this suffering, but it doesn't bother them as much as it does you. You might use expressions such as sting, stiffness, pinch, etc.

Medium

This pain is upsetting enough to cause a problem for your character, such as an inability to concentrate while taking an exam. Consider words like "throb," "ache," and "hurt," among others.

High

This applies to pain that is so severe that it compels your character to give up whatever they were doing before they experienced it. At this point, you can use expressions such as anguish, throes, torturous, and so on.

Extreme

Finally, this pain renders your character completely helpless and keeps them focused on healing themselves rather than anything else. When describing something as difficult as this, you can use adjectives such as racking, ripping, or harrowing.

On this scale, metaphors will undoubtedly have their place; however, you should try to avoid using more than one level of discomfort. If you like the word "punishing," for instance, you shouldn't combine it with the word "ripping" in a single metaphor.

How to Write Pain in Dialogue

Most of the time, pain in writing doesn't happen just once. It happens in steps. For instance, a wound will burn, itch, and tickle before it finally heals. This is a lot like how a character changes over time. Pain should make you change. If not, it won't help.

To keep your reader interested in your character's pain, you can show them suffering or try to get rid of their pain. To show their pain, all you have to do is describe it as it happens.

For example, "her fingers hurt," "she massaged her fingers that hurt," or "unknowingly, she curled her fingers to ease the pain of being stiff."

Be careful not to say it too much or too often, though. From once per chapter to once per scene is a good range for how often to make the pain worse.

You can also show how the character lives and tries to deal with their pain. "She picked up her pen with her toes because her fingers hurt" and "Eddie fidgeted irritably with his crutches" are good examples.

You can remind yourself more often in this way. However, it's more interesting because it's not just a reminder but also a personal challenge for the character to overcome as the reader watches.

how-to-write-pain-in-dialogue

Explain How The Pain Makes You Feel

It's tempting to talk about pain instead of showing it. Instead of talking about pain, think about how it would make you feel and act. Suppose your character's chest hurts because a ton of bricks are on it, like after an earthquake; show them having trouble breathing. If it's a sharp, stabbing pain in the head, make them wince and shrink their body.

If your character got hit with a baseball bat, don't just say they're in pain. Instead, make them fall to the ground, bleed through their ears, and turn blue. Then, make them pee, lose consciousness, or grumble. Instead of just saying "it hurts," show how it starts, moves, and stays the same.

For example, if your character gets hit hard in the face, make them move and make sounds that show how they feel. Make them lose their balance and have to struggle to stand up straight. Make them look scared, ashamed, shocked, or angry. Don't forget that it isn't always the pain. It's what happens because of it and how things would be different if it weren't there.

Trust the Reader

Words are essential to writers, but readers don't always need them. For example, let's say you have a character whose nails are slowly pulled out with pliers. Does it have to be said that it hurt or that the poor guy cried out in pain?

Don't think your readers can't figure out what you mean without words. We know that a person will be hurt when they are stabbed, punched, or lashed, just as we can picture the main character smirking when they hear a lie, their lips quivering during a supernatural experience, or their feet tapping during a panic attack. It's not that you want to avoid pain, but sometimes a scene is more memorable if the reader has to figure out what hurts.

Should I say it or not?

It's not just a matter of how to write about pain. More importantly, it's about whether or not the pain should be told. It depends on the situation, but writing about pain generally means leaving parts out and letting your readers fill in the blanks. Most of the time, this means showing the pain as a living, breathing thing on its own—how it started, grew, and caused the characters and their world to change.

Lastly, remember that pain is what makes a story interesting. Without it, neither the characters nor the story is interesting. If that happens, it won't be worth writing the story.

Here are resources I recommend to get more in-depth knowledge

Storytelling 101 teaches you how to write compelling stories worthy of commercial success. This is best for screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, videogame writers and storytellers.

Children’s Books 101 teaches you how to write stories that children will love. This is best for aspiring children’s book authors and storytellers.

Owl AI is the revolutionary AI-powered content production platform that helps storytellers, writers, and bloggers of all subject matter easily create highly-polished content.

Success, Money & Mindset Subliminal is a self-hypnosis recording that we recommend to new writers to help with focus, concentration, creativity, and motivation.

Shadow Work Journal: 240 Daily Prompts contains inner work exercises related to relationships, anger, anxiety, self-love, healing trauma, abandonment issues, depression, forgiveness, etc.

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