Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How does that feel?

Sandra Parshall


One second I was upright, walking across a patch of ice on the patio. The next, I was face-down on the bricks with blood gushing from my nose.

I’m sure I felt some pain in the moments after my recent fall, but that wasn’t my primary concern. My first thought: Omigod, are my glasses broken? (No, but they were so badly scratched that I had to buy new lenses at an exorbitant price.) My second thought: Omigod, what a mess, I’m bleeding all over everything. (I was.) I didn’t pay much attention to the pain until later, when I was resting with my head back and a handful of paper towels clamped over my nose. That was when I finally had the leisure to notice that the middle of my face felt as if I had, well, landed nose-down with great force on brick paving.

If I were describing this event in a novel, the pain would get the character’s attention a lot faster. And I’d have to come up with a more evocative description than the one in the last line of the previous paragraph. I would have to make the reader feel the pain along with the character. What kind of pain is it? Sharp? Dull? Shooting? Throbbing? Blinding? I could spend an extraordinary length of time putting together the right handful of words to make the suffering real to the reader.

Allowing the reader to experience physical sensations vicariously through a character’s body is part of the reader-character bonding that produces devoted fans. We may think it’s unimportant compared to letting the reader into the character’s heart and soul, but if you leave out sensory details a story seems flat and incomplete. Often the physical and emotional can’t be separated, because emotions cause physical reactions – the pounding heart of anger, the cold sweat of fear may be cliches, but they are familiar to almost every human being. It may be enough if we leave a reader with the thought, Yes, I know that feeling, I know exactly what it’s like. But a gifted writer can make us believe that what we’re experiencing through his or her character is unique, something never felt in quite this way before.

This is Anne Tyler’s description, in the non-mystery Celestial Navigation, of an agoraphobic character’s terror during his first outing in many years: “Dread rose in him like a flood in a basement, starting in his feet and rapidly filling his legs, his stomach, his chest, seeping out to his fingertips. Its cold flat surface lay level across the top of his throat. He swallowed and felt it tip and right itself. Nausea came swooping over him, and he buckled at the knees and slid downward until he was seated flat on the sidewalk with his feet sticking out in front of him.”

In cozy mysteries, pain and bloodshed are usually kept offstage, but in the darker forms of crime fiction, characters stagger from one
emotional and physical extreme to the next. When they aren’t terrified, they’re reeling from gunshots, stab wounds, blows to the head. If a character is rendered unconscious, the reader wants something a little more detailed than the old standby, “And then the world went black.” Yeah, but in the seconds before that descent into blessed oblivion, how did it feel?

Is it possible to accurately describe something we’ve never experienced? I’ve never been shot, stabbed, thrown off a building, or clobbered with a blunt object, so what do I know? Granted, many readers haven’t had those experiences either, but that won’t stop them from passing judgment on the authenticity of my descriptions. How do I get them right?

I can extrapolate. I know how a deep cut on the hand or foot feels, and I might be able to use that sensation if I amplify it several thousand times. I’ve banged my head on enough cabinet doors and other unforgiving objects to imagine how a blow from a pipe or baseball bat would feel. I’ve fallen from a height and will never forget the feeling. A gunshot? Nothing comparable in my bag of life events, so I have to ask someone who’s been through it. When I questioned both a combat veteran and a former policeman about being wounded in the line of duty, their answers were surprising – and surprisingly similar. Both said that so much adrenaline was pouring through them that they felt no pain at first and didn’t realize they’d been hit. I’ve seen a similar reaction described in some crime novels, but more often the character collapses in agony. Whether a particular scenario works or not depends on the skill of the writer, but as a reader I find the delayed reaction more intriguing and realistic in an intense action scene.

Sex scenes are the bane of crime novelists, and some writers shun them, either because they don’t want to stop the story long enough to throw in a sexual encounter or they dread writing about such intimate contact. Only the writers who started in the romance genre seem to feel comfortable detailing every touch and thrill of their characters’ sex lives. Do readers appreciate the effort? Many don’t. Sexual pleasure somehow seems out of place in most mysteries and thrillers, and I suspect that a lot of readers skim those scenes or skip them entirely, preferring to move ahead to the next round of pulse-pounding terror and excruciating pain.

Some writers are so good at making the agony feel real that I have to wonder whether they have a touch of the sadist in them. When I need inspiration, I can turn to Val McDermid’s thrillers, Lisa Gardner’s Gone (a lead character is imprisoned in a wet, cold basement for much of the book), a terrifying chapter in Elizabeth Becka’s Trace Evidence that’s written from a victim’s viewpoint. For depictions of characters teetering on the psychological and emotional edge, no one matches Ruth Rendell and Thomas H. Cook.

When I was young, long before I published a novel, my chief failing as a writer was that I didn’t let readers get close enough to my characters. Too many times, critique partners complained that they couldn’t feel what the characters were experiencing. I’m learning and, I hope, improving. Maybe I still have time before I check out of this life to produce a passage that will make a reader exclaim, “I’ll never forget that scene – I felt like I was living it through your character.”

13 comments:

Paul Lamb said...

I think holding your head back when you have a nosebleed is no longer considered the proper (or even safe) treatment.

Julia Buckley said...

First, Sandra, so sorry that you fell like that. Are you fully recovered?

Second, this is some excellent writing advice.

Auntie Knickers said...

Ouch! I guess the big consolation for an experience like that is that now you can use it in your writing, except the fall will be a push by a bad person? I had a scary fall down steps once, and what I remember best is the flying through space and thinking (yelling?) "Oh no, oh no." And yes, my first thought was about my glasses too! I will be thinking of you in your recovery.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

One stumbling block to describing pain is that on some level we don't remember it. I've read and heard that many times, and I've come to the conclusion that it's true. Think of your worst pain ever, try imagining yourself back to the physical sensation, and see if there isn't a gap. It's been said that this is the only reason any woman goes through childbirth more than once.

Sheila Connolly said...

After all that...how is your nose??

I think you captured the surprise aspect of your fall well. One minute you're going along happily, upright. The next, you're not. It takes a moment to process that fact, and then you start doing inventory to see what hurts.

Sandra Parshall said...

My nose is fine, everybody. The black eye has faded, the scratches have healed. I'm still feeling the hurt (and annoyance) of paying $450 to have the lenses in my glasses replaced, though. Thank goodness the frames didn't break too --and if I'd been wearing my contacts at the time, I'd probably still be out there searching for them.

I fell down a full flight of stairs years ago, Knickers, and I also remember that flying-through-air sensation. I think that's the most frightening thing that's ever happened to me. When I landed at the bottom of the stairs -- with a nose that was definitely broken -- I was astonished to still be alive. Now I cringe every time I see a scene in a movie or TV show that has someone falling down stairs and ending up dead. It could have happened that way for me so easily.

I was also struck by a car (drunk driver) when I was 13, and although I wasn't seriously injured I still remember the impact and being knocked down by that big machine. Terrifying. Life is dangerous, people. Be careful out there!

Susan D said...

Good, throught-provoking past, Sandra.

I think back to the time I was hit with a car while on my bike. Fear, terror, uncertaintly, anger. And the slow motion feeling of, "Am I going to stop existing when I hit the pavement?" But no thoughts of pain.

The memory of pain is related to my recent kidney stone attack, because it was all-consuming, blotting out all other thoughts.

I try to keep these feelings alive, because I can certainly use them in a book.

Eddie said...

A number of years ago I had the misfortune to be kicked by a young horse that was being led past me. She got me in the back of the thigh and knocked me instantly to the ground. My first reaction was surprise and confusion. Then my mind invented an explanation for the source of the strong, sudden forced had knocked me over (it involved someone with a 2x4, not a horse!). Pain came along much later--and a stunning bruise! I had the same reaction in 2 car accidents.

More recently my own horse stood on my foot. That pain was instant, blinding, and suffocating. It interfered with my sight, hearing and breathing--it seemed all I could do was inhale. I couldn't even cuss! The unexpectedness of the events didn't seem to have anything to do with the pain experience itself. In fact, it seems like the more dramatic the incident, the less pain is experienced

Sandra Parshall said...

I'll admit I've always been a little afraid of horses, and now I see that my fear is justified! I'm most afraid of being bitten, though. I couldn't feed a horse from my bare hand. I'm convinced I would lose some fingers in the process.

Rebbie Macintyre said...

Pain is a funny thing like that. I've used one or two really vividly painful events over and over in my writing by changing the setting, character etc. Once the visceral kicks in, it's pretty hard to forget, huh?

Meredith Cole said...

I'm glad you're okay, Sandy. It could have been a lot worse!

It's so interesting how adrenaline often kicks in at times like that, and we don't really notice the pain until after we've calmed down. But if you wrote that scene in a book, someone would probably tell you that the person should be writhing in pain right away!

Anonymous said...

My name is Margaret Palmer. This is in response to a frightening or painful experience used in writing. I have had so many of these it's not funny. I was an overweight child which brought it's own share of pain and teasing. I am an incest survivor which I only came to terms with in recent years. I went through so much with both my marriages, it's a wonder I haven't lost my mind. The single event that has been the most difficult to deal with however and to this day still haunts me to some extent is when I was married to my second husband. The experiences I went through with him would fill many volumes, but I'll stick to one in particular. We had been married for almost a year. I had just found out I was pregnant and was excited to tell him. He appeared excited as well. Looks can be deceiving. He left the house to tell his step mom about the pregnancy. It was close to 1AM when he came home. My daughter was sleeping in her room and he went to the den to watch TV. He made several passed from the den to the kitchen. He returned to the den and he turned up the TV very loud. I asked him, as he passed the bedroom door, to turn it down because my daughter had to get up for school the next day. He said "If you want it turned down, do it yourself." So, I got up to do just that. He came up behind me and grabbed me from behind pulling back toward the couch. He started to stab me throughout my body with the deepest cuts being in my stomach. He stabbed me so hard, that the knife blade bent and broke. He threw that one down and picked up another one and continued. Evidently, he had placed several knives and a glass plate on the couch next to us. I didn't even notice when I entered the room. He said he wanted money(I had just got my check that day). When I told him I didn't have any, he threatened to hit me in the head with the plate. Then, he picked up yet another knife, and attempted to slit my throat. I clamped down my chin to my chest. Before he was finished, I had my throat cut and been stabbed fourteen times, the deepest in my stomach. I also had stab wounds on my back, breasts and arms. The worst part was my 12 year old daughter awoke and witnessed the whole thing. During trying to fight for my life, I had to holler at my daughter to get out of the house. He finally dragged me to my bedroom and I gave him what money I had and he left. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance, but I refused to be taken out by a stretcher because I wanted to show my daughter my injuries were very minor. I walked to the back of the ambulance and got in under my own power hurting like you wouldn't believe. I had to endure more indignities at the hospital by being photographed, questioned and given a rectal exam because of possible rape, all the time telling them that didn't occur. When my daughter was in the room, I smiled and joked with her. When she left, I felt like dying and cried. I did press charges and he later died in prison. I still have occasional flashbacks, especially when someone is arguing around me. Post Traumatic Stress disorder is not just for soldiers. This is just one of many experiences I have had that has made me a stronger person, and a stronger writer.

G.M. Malliet said...

Sandra - This was scary. Glad you're ok.

And $450 for glasses is highway robbery!