Friday, June 24, 2011
In Terms of Pain
It's about pain.
How do you write a painful scene for your characters? In my WIP, you'll find phrases like "blinding, searing pain," and "my whole body screamed." And then there's my favorite: "excruciating."
But none of these descriptions is authentic, because when a person feels pain, it's in context of some other, superior emotion. So I decided to share my ordeal immediately after the collision without using the word "excruciating" and you can understand better what I truly felt, beyond the pain.
When I'm done screaming, everything stops. I can't breathe. My wind is gone. I can't draw breath. And I need to. I so need to, because Sam and Layne are in the back and I don't know how badly they might be hurting. I hear Sam cry, "I don't want my car to crash!" And then there's the smell of smoke. Putrid, chemical smoke. I now have two goals in life: 1) breathe, and 2) wrap my arms around my boys, keep them safe from everything forever.
Just. Breathe. By force of will, the air fills my lungs. I see my glasses on the gear shift and grab them before I open the door. It lurches unevenly, letting me stumble to my feet. I can stand. And if I can stand, then I can hold my boys. I reach Layne first, undoing the five-point harness that lets him laugh as he holds his chubby hands out to me. Sam cries in the stillness. He's so scared. I stretch my arm across the space between us and unbuckle him, repeating, "I'm so sorry, sweetie. It'll be okay." I hope that's true. No time passes, yet I'm on the other side of the car, opening his door and helping him onto the asphalt with my free arm. A nice older man helps us cross the street and settle into the lawn to call for help. The space around us is still but I'm reeling as if there's no floor and no sky. In my arms, Layne lunges to hug his big brother, ever the comforter. I flinch for the first time.
We're alive. It's a miracle. We're alive. Layne lunges again. My neck twists. I try to hold him with my shaking arms. I know this sensation from childbirth. It's the God-given adrenaline leaving me. My husband comes running across the street. I've never been happier to see him. I hand him the baby and I cry. "My neck."
When the paramedics tie me to a stretcher, my sons reach for me. "I'm okay. It'll be okay," I tell them. But Layne is just a year old and he doesn't understand. It's the first time he's really scared. I thank God Bill is there to carry them home. I thank God the back seat got the least of it. I took the brunt of the force, and that's right. But my arm, my neck, my back - the sharp wrenching will never relent.
Even at the hospital, several miles of bumpy road later, my mind circles back to Layne and his untimely laughter, Sam and his terrified face. And I keep thinking, They're alive. They're okay. I'm alive.
And later, There's no rewind. It happened. You're alive. Just live. Because later the pain grows, just as the doctor said it would. And sitting up, even with help, makes the world spin out of focus.
I come home from the hospital to find my sons terrorizing their babysitter with Kinect Sports. They're all winded and red-cheeked and happy. Happy.
Now I can heal. And pain? That's just an afterthought.
Authentic pain is always an appendage to something more. For me, my sons trump my pain any day of the week, even now when I'm struggling to regain muscle tone in my arm and neck. How many times have I scooped the 30-lb almost-2-year-old into my arms when he's crying or reaching for me? A doctor would call that stupid, and he'd be right. But there are some things more important than pain.
When your character is hit or shot or tased, they'll feel pain. But something else will trump that pain for them, too - not canceling it out, but making it meaningful. Make sure you're not so preoccupied with a fancy word for "hurt" that you miss what a real person thinks about in a crisis situation. I know I have a lot of work to do on my WIP. Because "excruciating" just doesn't cover it.