Being a Better Writer: Writing About Injuries

Hello readers, and welcome to … Topic. List. Eleven!

Okay, so it’s probably not such a big deal for those of you who are newcomers or aren’t sitting on my end of the keyboard, but on this side knowing that I’ve made it through ten of these sheets of paper with Being a Better Writer topics on them is a little awe-inspiring. This marks the fifth year of writing these, and from the look if it, I’m not going to run out of topics anytime soon.

So then, let’s talk injuries. Specifically, writing about them, why we write about them, and some of the different ways we can use them in our writing, for good or bad.

Actually, we’re going to tackle this in not quite that order. First up, why write about injury? Why should we be concerned with keeping track of our characters pains and aches, especially if they’re not “important” to the story?

Well, as you can probably guess by the quotes around “important” in that last paragraph, I’d disagree entirely, regardless of the type of story that we’re writing. That’s right, injury and pain are just as important in a story that’s a Regency Romance as they are in a story that’s an action-adventure novel. Do you know why?

Because pain and injury, minor or major, are a part of life. They’re as much as it sounds strange to say it this way, a unique flavor that’s a part and parcel of the experience. Ask yourself how many times you’ve stubbed a toe, burned a finger or palm, or suffered a cut or scrape across your arm. In all likelihood, you probably can’t even remember a large number of those times … but you still know that they happened because they’re part of the experience of life.

Bringing this back to writing, having characters that don’t live at risk of even these small, simple injuries is like … well, it’s a way of making our characters flatter. Like a drawing with no shading. If we don’t let them be at risk of injury, part of the “image” the reader is building in their minds doesn’t quite acquire the right color. Our characters become less real, in other words, because they aren’t at risk of experiencing the same basic tenants of mortality that the reader is.

Now, I’m not saying that all your characters have to go out and experience paper cuts right now or they’re not fully-fleshed out characters. For starters, you can be far more clever and original than a paper cut (though that may have merit depending on your cast). But it goes back to the disconnect I’ve spoken about before with a large portion of American cinema and the difference between American Western films and Spaghetti Westerns.

For those of you who aren’t film buffs, let me explain. If you watch a classic Spaghetti Western, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and then immediately swap over to an American Western, one of the biggest differences you’ll notice in the cast that’s incredibly jarring when juxtaposed is the way the actors look throughout the film. In a Spaghetti Western, they get brutalized. Their bodies and clothes start out dirty and used and then only get worse from there as the story goes along. By the end their faces are smeared with dirt, crusted with blood, and covered in bruises, scrapes, and wounds.

American Westerns? Their characters start out immaculate, like their clothes have just come off the rack at a big-brand store. Dirt? Hollywood doesn’t want to cover the faces of its leading roles or make them look “weak.” Dirt rolls right off them, or—if it sticks—finds itself attached in places that won’t detract from the male lead’s strong jaw, or the female lead’s cheekbones. By the end of the film, the cast of an American Western tends to look … well, pretty fresh. Like actors, not characters. If they suffer an injury, it’s something small, a thing trickle of blood that doesn’t detract from their “marketability.”

And to anyone who’s ever been in a similar scenario, that just screams “faaaaake.” Crud, even those that haven’t been in a similar scenario can still see that something is out of place.

Are you seeing the connection here? Injury and pain are part of what make us “human.” Part of what make us “alive.” And if our characters are impervious to such injury and pain? Or it only appears at the prescribed, climactic moment? It feels false. Our characters feel false. Like facsimiles rather than living, breathing people who can face injury and feel wounds the same way we do. Really, when you get down to it, injury and pain are a tool in the writer’s toolbox for making our characters feel real and relateable.

Okay, so that’s the why. We want our characters to feel human, to feel real, so we let them experience real situations and consequences, which include pain, so that the audience identifies with them. What about the how though.

Because believe me, this can be done wrong. I read a disappointingly by-the-beat book a few weeks ago that in the opening bit had the character go jogging and almost immediately there was the sense of “Oh, let me guess, they’re going to get hurt—Yup, they twisted their ankle.” Said ankle than became a crutch piece for tension for the rest of the book anytime there was anything the protagonist needed to run from. Predictable and, one could say, effectively a case of author intervention messing with the protagonist in a ham-handed attempt to give the story more tension later (a fact which was a told reminder every time the character needed to run away, too).

That’s an injury done poorly. For one, it was done for a singular reason, and a singular reason only: To give the later chase scenes more “tension” (not that the character could ever actually fall in any of them, as they establish foe was an insta-kill, so there was never a chance of it actually touching her; I mentioned this wasn’t a very good book, didn’t I?). That was it. Not to make them more “human” or even just as an accident. It was literally a forcefully given “injury from above” to artificially increase the tension later.

Clearly, not something we want in our stories. So how do we do an injury well?

Well, for starters, they don’t have to be a world-shattering injury that affects the story from every moment thereon. Injuries can be humanizing and character-building even if they don’t do much more than that (though you can easily wrap other elements into them).

Let me give you an example from the upcoming Shadow of an Empire. Fairly spoiler-free, and early in the novel, so no worries there. But early on, one of the protagonists is both slightly sore from riding and fairly sunburned from a whole day out under the sun, and we have an exchange where the other protagonist notes it and the way they’re gingerly moving and passes them a salve that eases the symptoms of the sunburn somewhat.

Now, does the sunburn persist for the rest of the story? No, but it does establish some important elements. For starters, it gives the protagonist a clear, realistic consequence to their choice, which, while simple, solidifies and grounds the world the character is in. Yes, they suffered something most people have, and for the same thing. Actions have consequences, and they’re consequences that most readers can identify with!

But that’s not all it does. There’s a bit of character-building in both how the character with the sunburn handles it, and in what the other protagonist does in giving them the salve. While the sunburn fades from the story with the application of the salve and the usual reaction to a lot of sun, the act of giving the salve doesn’t, and the one character even thinks on it later as part of the other character’s, well, character.

The sunburn humanizes both characters, despite being a minor bit of discomfort, by both providing an avenue of relation to the reader (it’s realistic, and the character is suffering from something common many can empathize with) and by showing the characters themselves react to it, with one character saying nothing about it and the other character nonetheless digging the salve out of their gear.

Humanizing and character building for a light injury. Not bad. And it also feels natural, like something that would really happen, rather than something forced on the story for the sake of convenience.

Now, this isn’t to say that world-shattering injuries like broken limbs also can’t feel natural and real, nor bring about the same sort of results for our characters. But again, we need to be careful with how we both use them, and how we set them up.

For example, let’s look at a really big one from the film Die Hard: The bloodied feet. Die Hard is one of those films that does let the protagonist get beaten up over the course of the story (along with leak enough blood to make a sumo pass out) and does so in a very organic manner: He initially removes his shoes because he hates flying, and a fellow passenger aboard a jet in the opening moments of the film told him to try kneading his toes in grass or carpet. When the attack happens, he leaves his shoes behind, going barefoot. He even tries to steal shoes from the feet of the terrorists he takes down, but they don’t fit at all. Later the villain observes his lack of shoes and instructs his men to shoot out the glass around the protagonist, forcing him to run across it and cut up his feet.

The result is that the character acquires a very severe injury that plagues them for the remainder of the film and raises the stakes, but in a carefully presented and realistic manner that feels like something that could really happen. And, sure, it plays it light with the consequences a few times, though only in situations where one could argue that adrenaline would be overriding the normal pain response, but it plays it straight quite a bit more, leading to the famous “ragged walk” at the end of the movie.

Again, that result is very human, because a large portion of the audience is going to sympathize with that “ragged walk” at the end in some manner, and know how the character got there. We can make large injuries organic and realistic, even if they’re sudden and debilitating by carefully setting them up and making them feel natural to the setting.

We can even have “accidents” that are as unexpected to the author as they are to the reader. In Jungle, for instance (which none of you have read yet), there were moments where it was possible for an accident to occur, and rather than decide beforehand … I rolled dice or flipped a coin to keep the organic feel of the shock because no one, not even the author, could have expected it, and the story continued on all the same, but with a new wrinkle. Thus, the reaction is very real. And yes, I’ve read books before where the “accident” is so telegraphed that Sherlock Holmes would go around looking for a motive.

Okay, enough on this. We’ve talked about using minor injuries to build character, and setting up major injuries in the narrative. But what about using said injuries to further the story, either in adding tension or as a catalyst for character development? How do you even go about writing an injury realistically in the first place? Or do you even need an injury to happen?

Think carefully on that last one, and recall what I said about injuries making our characters more mortal. While it may sometimes be tempting to give our characters an injury that works, it can have vast ramifications for further on in the story. A character with broken ribs, for instance, is going to have a lot of difficulty moving, which may have an effect of writing your story into a corner your protagonist can’t get out of.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give your characters realistic and debilitating wounds, but consider exactly how that can effect your story before you do so. If your climax involves the primary character taking a very long-distance, critical shot at the antagonist, don’t blind them so that they can’t shoot without some sort of plan in place for getting around that!

Once you’re confident that you aren’t putting yourself in a corner you can’t get out of, and once you know that the injury cause won’t come off as “act of author” rather than story, how do you go about actually writing about said injury?

Well, for starters, show over tell helps. Don’t tell the reader about the injury—exceptions given though, as in all things for proper use, such as a doctor telling the character something that is immediately reinforced by a show—but let it show. Sands, it should show. If your character has a broken limb, or a deep cut or gash, that’s the kind of thing that can carry tremendous and immediate repercussions. Even a blow to the head can be life-threatening, despite what Hollywood would have us think.

Now, there are two things to consider when it comes to this aspect of an injury. The first is the old standby: Research. Lots of it. Not just in how an injury occurs and what all the possible ramifications of it can be, from treatment to additional injury, but also in what if feels like. I’ve had a lot of injuries over the course of my life, and you know what’s interesting about them? They’ve all felt different. Tearing my meniscus was different from tearing the muscle right next to it, and cracking 4-6 of my ribs was completely different from overstretching the tendons in my wrist. All came with their own pains, movements, and aches.

Each of them was different. And unless you want someone who has broken a leg reaching that part of your story and going “Well, they don’t know what that’s like,” do some digging! People have written about this kind of stuff! You don’t have to have broken an arm to write about the experience if you can accurately build the experience from learning about others.

But I said there were two things to consider when coming to this point in a story. The one is the research, but the other is the established tone of your story with regard to injuries.

Look, in the real world, a single gunshot is often fatal, but can also leave someone alive for some time. Head injuries can instantly kill. So can a mis-timed blow to the chest. Broken bones splinter and can lead to permanent pains and scars. And so on and so forth.

But in most stories? Gunshot wounds are either instantly fatal or “just a flesh wound.” Head injuries can be walked off. Broken bones heal cleanly. This is the “tone” for injury that the story sets for itself, and this can be just fine … as long as the story is consistent.

Look, you want your characters to get knocked out by a blow to the head and wake up without a concussion or brain damage. You can do that … as long as you’re consistent. Don’t play fast and loose with the tone you’ve established for your story, and better yet, decide on that tone early on so you don’t create a sudden dissonance with how your characters treat injury later.

In other words, keep the severity of injuries consistent within each story. If you’re going for ultra realism, don’t drop it out of nowhere, and likewise the inverse if you’re going for lighthearted and fun (Insomniac Games’ Sunset Overdrive parodied this by having their main character die to a wound in the “end” of the game and be mourned by the cast, only for the character, who had canonically died and respawned multiple times over the course of the game, respawn behind them and make fun of the writers trying for a cheap moment of sentimentality that ignored the very rules of the game). Whatever “level” of realism you treat injuries with, keep it steady over the course of the story.

Got it? I hope so, because I’ve pretty much exhausted my mind on this topic  and said all I have to say. Let’s recap:

First, injuries are a part of life, and letting your characters experience them, even minor ones, can keep them grounded and flesh them out in both the reader’s mind and in their world. Second, you can use injuries to escalate tension and show the seriousness of a situation, force the characters to adapt and overcome. But when you do this, you need to make the injury itself organic to the story, plus consistent with reality and the tone you’ve set so far.

And that’s all I’ve got for you today. Good luck! Now get writing!

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