THE PAIN LEXICON: Let’s Make It Hurt

Writers want to make their readers feel.

That’s the name of the game, right? We want readers to live vicariously through our novels, to feel what our characters feel. But too often we limit ourselves to writing about how they feel about things. We focus on the internal life of our characters–jealousy, sadness, joy, terror–and forget about making our characters feel the PHYSICAL. That sort of mind-body divide only allows our characters to live half lives…and nobody wants to read about a character who lives wholly  inside themselves. That’s navel gazing at its worst!

What can we do to avoid that? We can bring the pain. 

Juliana L. Brandt, Charlie Holmberg, and I compiled a list of ‘pain’ words that will help you dig into the physicality of your characters. We’re focusing on pain specifically, but the idea is that you find ways to show physicality, instead of telling the reader about it.

We’re calling our list…


Screenshot 2013-12-10 20.09.53Screenshot 2013-12-10 20.15.09

AWESOME, RIGHT?! But that’s not all!

Juliana has already blogged on how to show (vs tell) using the pain lexicon, while Charlie has provided an awesome step-by-step guide to using the Pain Lexicon in your own writing.

As for me, I’m going to talk about Chuck Palahniuk’s amazing “on-the-body” writing advice, using the Pain Lexicon to help demonstrate his approach. According to Chuck, author of FIGHT CLUB, SURVIVOR, and my personal favorite, CHOKE,

It’s one thing to engage the reader mentally, to enroll his or her mind and make them think, imagine, consider something….But if you can engage the reader on a physical level as well, then you’ve created a reality that can eclipse their actual reality. – “Using on-the-body physical sensations.”

ECLIPSE THEIR ACTUAL REALITY. If that’s not EXACTLY what we’re all striving for, then I don’t know what is. Chuck goes on to say that you can’t force the reader to feel a physical sensation. You have to built it up, create it–you have to ‘un-pack’ a given moment, allowing the reader to feel every single sensation as it occurs.

Don’t rush–this is time to indulge.

I’m going to give you an example, but first, here’s one last piece of advice from me and Chuck: don’t fall back on clichés. “Searing pain” or “sharp, stabbing pain” or “throbbing head-ache”…these are so overdone that they no longer mean anything. Instead, come up with your own ways of describing pain.

Find your own way to make it hurt.


I’ll start with a horrible example of a ‘pain’ passage that should never, ever appear in any book, ever. Take note of all the instances of telling.

The captain shot me. At first it didn’t hurt, but then, all of a sudden, it hurt so much I thought I was dying. I thought the pain would never end. I moved away from him, but he chased me. When I landed on the floor, pain filled my arm.

Terrible, right? Not only do I use the words ‘pain’ and ‘hurt’ twice, but there’s no indication of what kind of pain I’m talking about. It’s a gun shot wound, so you could probably assume the pain is acute, but is it spreading? Is the muscle aching? What muscle are we even talking about?! Let’s unpack this a bit, using the pain lexicon:

The captain fired.  My right arm jerked back, pulling me off balance. A moment of silence, of stillness, passed…and then my nerves all fired at once. Burning, stinging, throbbing…an ache that penetrated deep into my muscle, pulsing against the bone. I clutched at the hole in my leather coat, my ears ringing from the shot.

The captain dropped the gun and rushed toward me, his arms outstretched though he was across the room. Still gripping my bicep, I backed away, never taking my eyes off him. My arm felt heavy and strange, as if it didn’t belong to me anymore. I tried to move my fingers, but they hung off the end of my arm, thick and useless. I was almost to the door when my foot tangled in a thick rope, sending me sprawling to the floor. I landed hard on my shoulder, sending a fresh wave of muscle-tearing agony through my arm.

Way better, right? I only used pain once (and I bet I could get rid of it entirely if I wanted to!), but I also managed to include a) where the speaker was shot, b) what the pain felt like at first, c) how the pain changed, and d) how he responded to that pain. I also included more details about the shooter, since he’s also an extremely important part of the scene. Instead of just saying ‘he shot me,’ we know he fired…and then dropped the gun. He rushes toward the victim–to finish the job? to see if he’s okay?–his arms outstretched.

Not only do you get a very clear, ‘on-the-body’ description of this injury, but you also get a clue about the character’s interiority. Because ultimately, that’s the name of the game–you want the reader to know your character inside AND out.

Wasn’t that twisted and fun?! I’d LOVE to see your writing in the comments. Bonus points if you use The Pain Lexicon!!


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2 Responses to THE PAIN LEXICON: Let’s Make It Hurt

  1. Pingback: Juliana L. Brandt - Fiction Writer – Show vs Tell: The Pain Lexicon

  2. Rose says:

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