Some time ago, we did a speed writing session for one hour. Actually, compared to the usual fifteen minute writing practices here, an hour might seem glacially slow. But we all know how fast an hour can speed by, especially when we’re wandering around aimlessly in the land of social media while our cursor blinks wistful and lonesome on our WIP in the background, buried multiple browser windows in.
Today, we’re going to do it again. I’m asking you to squeeze, pull, extract one sacred hour of time from your busy day and devote it purely and completely to your writing. But this time we have a theme. That theme is PAIN.
Before you click away from this page, worried that writing about pain will weigh down your bright and shiny day, think about it for a nanosecond. What is it that most great stories have?
Antagonist (force) pushing the protagonist to evolve, grow, learn, progress, or erupt in gratuitous fill-in-the-blank.
Pain is part of conflict and part of life. Embrace it.
Pain in Four Elements
Pain comes in all shapes, sizes and intensities. It can be the root canal, the bullet wound, the torn Achilles tendon. That’s the physical, bodily type that still gets splattered across too many movie screens because Hollywood thinks that’s what we want to watch. We’ll call this one EARTH.
It can be the break-up, the betrayal, the loss of a loved one. That’s the emotional, heart-wrenching type that makes you want to curl up in bed forever—or reach for that weapon of mass destruction you’ve framed so lovingly above your fireplace. We’ll call this one FIRE.
It can be the effects of abuse, war or violence, the lifelong trauma seeded in childhood. That’s the psychological type that carves lines in your psyche and runs deeper than the Marianas Trench. This one is WATER.
It can be the existential crisis, the identity crisis, the loss of faith. That’s the spiritual type of pain that can haunt us for a lifetime or give us a new purpose in life. Yep, you guessed it: this one is AIR.
You can call on one, several, or all four of these elemental types of pain in your work, as your characters go through conflict and navigate the peaks and valleys of your narrative. In life, of course, the archetypes of pain often come blended one into another, tough to disentangle and even tougher to resolve—the more true-to-life you can make this in your writing, the deeper you dare go, the more your literary truths will resonate with readers.
There is beauty in pain. Pain hurts, but it also makes us feel. It reminds us we are alive. It makes us drop to our knees in gratitude for freedom if we’ve been in whatever kind of prison, for love if we’ve finally found it, for joy if all we’ve known is misery. I will never forget the scene I once read in a book where a character had just escaped some brutal medieval battle and woken up near a barn somewhere. The color of the sky was more intense, the green of the grass and trees more lush, the air more fragrant than ever.
I can relate—there was an episode of similar intensity in my life. Not a battle, but something equally life-changing. I could literally feel the color of the sky.
Behold the photo above. What’s your first, instinctive reaction? Would you hug this tree? Would you climb up and slide down its trunk, or would you be quite content admiring its studded, er, stunning beauty? Flip it: how would the tree feel if you cut it down with a chainsaw? And you if you sold it to a lumber company knowing you’d just cut down the habitat of a rare animal or bird species?
Use the power of pain to paint beauty.
One More Thing
One of my fellow writers once told me he hates (yes, hates) writing the first draft. “It’s painful,” he told me, grimacing. “I’d much rather edit.”
I blinked at him, unable to absorb the strangeness of what he’d just said. For me, the most exhilarating part of writing is that virgin creation, those first coherent thoughts, those fresh words upon the page that you call from somewhere deep within our collective human soul (or beyond if you’re writing sci-fi) and make them rain down upon your screen in a spinning torrent of literary ecstasy. Of course sometimes it’s nothing but a trickle, but hey. Sooner or later the magic sparks, and you’ve got a manuscript. Pain for me is writing that last word and finishing a manuscript, because in a way, the initial journey of that book has concluded.
This happened recently, in fact. I finished a novel I was working on for six intense months. (Somebody get me a mojito!!) I felt a physical knot in my chest when I wrote that final word. I can’t wait for the publisher to send me back their edits so I can drop back in again. Such a fish out of water…
So stand up tall and straight, chest out, chin up, and go on! Brave those undulating seas of pain.
Take an hour in your day and focus on the pain or conflict your characters are going through, and intensify it. If you don’t have a WIP you want to work on, whip up a random scene. Use dialogue, action, background, weather, whatever will paint your story a richer, deeper, truer color.
Post here, and be sure to critique your fellow writers. You know the drill: praise is fine, critique is better.