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Betrayals and Stab Wounds and Broken Nails, Oh My!

The gunshot is very loud in my ears. My stomach feels like there might be a hole in it. Ouch. I have been shot and the blood keeps pouring out and it hurts deep inside and I might be dying—


That was horrible, right? Sorry to put you through that. How do we tackle writing various emotions or sensations that we ourselves have never felt before? I’m not telling you to go ahead and cut off your arm or anything like that for the sake of authenticity. There are some great resources out there to help you through this in your writing. I'll tackle a few here with some helpful tips.

1- Describe it as accurately as you can

  • As with most aspects of writing, do your research. How does it feel based on other people's accounts? There's the whole wide web out there to dive into and find some wonderful, gruesome accounts of bear attacks, self-mutilation, and other such cheerful subjects! Don't know what it feels like to have a nail-gun misfire and shoot you in the eye? I'm sure there's an account of a similar mishap out there somewhere.

  • But what if it's a dragon biting your leg off? Sadly, dragons are not real, so that's a great question. Your best option would be to find the next best story out there. There are hundreds if not thousands of accounts of wild animal attacks. Seek for something similar that could help give you that realistic edge in describing such an encounter.

  • When it comes to emotions, I'm sure you're feeling pretty confident in your descriptions, having felt many things before. You might stumble across a roadblock though if you're writing about deep, bitter betrayal, or the ecstasy of flight. When it comes down to it, there may be some emotional situations we can't really fathom, but you can do your best by exploring the closest human experiences, and see how it made people feel. Flying, for example, could be similar to skydiving or bungee jumping. A horrible betrayal on a grand scale, such as a kingdom being betrayed by their supposed allies, might be an emotion you haven't ever felt. Unfortunately, many of us are familiar with betrayal, albeit on a smaller scale. What can you do? You can amplify that sucker! Or, you can also do research on circumstances not far from what you're writing about.

2- Don’t over-describe

  • As much as that previous tip is meant to help you, it can also hinder you if you end up over-describing. You don’t need to make your readers ears fall off by taking pages and pages to describe something your character is feeling.

  • Keep it short and sweet, and remember that in all scenes that you write, there are several ways to attack it. Take it at an angle and go with it. You don't need to count out every blade of grass that your character can see as she lies in a pool of her own blood. Keep the momentum going by describing what is vital to the reader and to keeping that part of your story intense and exciting.

3- Take your character’s personality into account

  • Yes, getting stabbed in the back (literally) would hurt for anyone, but your characters might have a different experience compared to my characters. If it’s some macho helicopter pilot from WWII, he may be like “well, this sucks, but having my foot ripped off hurt a lot more…” While a princess getting stabbed in the back might be like, “What the heck, I’ve only ever broken a nail before, I must be dying!” Yes, you probably are. But does that make sense? They will feel pain, but they may react differently.

  • Take also into account their emotional reaction, as compared to the physical reaction. Some may respond in anger, some may respond in sadness. "Et tu, Brute?"

  • Another thing to consider in your character's reaction would be what they decide to do next. The princess I described might just lay back and expect that the worst has come. The helicopter pilot might try to push past it to finish his mission. You want what happens to your characters to be as believable as possible, so keeping their personality in mind will help authenticate the reading experience for your audience.

4- Not all injuries feel the same​

  • You’re not going to have one character react the same to both a gunshot and a stab wound. If you’ve done your research as suggested in the first tip, you will find that there is a smorgasbord of pain out there. As the types and severity of the wounds vary, so does the pain.

  • This picture to the right is a great resource I found on what to keep in mind depending on the type of injury you're writing about.

  • Keep also in mind how the injury would be depending on your character's age, health, etc.

5- Don’t forget the five senses as your character writhes in agony on the floor!

  • Yes, the physical pain will be the sense most prominent in their mind. But as you describe this physical pain, there may be a sense of smell that suddenly comes to their attention as they contemplate life and death, or whether they should go to the hospital (you don’t have to make all of your wounds life-threatening!).

  • On personal accounts I've read in regards to severe injury, many people will suddenly hone in on a certain sense such as the sounds around them at the time, or maybe the external sensation of dirt hitting their face as they fell to the ground after receiving a gunshot wound.

  • Keep in mind that you don't want to assault your readers with too much description. It's good to get a balance between using the five senses in your writing and keeping the intensity of the story going at crucial points such as these.

I hope the tips listed above will help you in your endeavors of describing emotion and sensation that you may not have personally felt before. As writers, we put our characters through so much! Oftentimes it's something we ourselves would never go through, although we may often wish we could. Best of luck in writing the best emotional and sensational scenes for your characters!

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