Pain is the Writer’s Tool

by | Feb 13, 2023


Pain. The thing we avoid.

It’s not just for the purpose of survival that we avoid pain, but simply out of an instinct of good horse sense. Who wants to be hurt? Who wants to deal with the aftermath?

In fact, the aftermath is often the worst part; facing up to the chaos left in the wake of a bad mistake; and standing in humiliation with all the “I told you so” castigating chatter. Then trying to find a quick strategy for making things right again, and re-establishing order. That lesson of pain will often be the teaching moment that goes into your marrow and insures you will never make that mistake again. And if you truly learned the lesson–you absolutely won’t do it again.

Reel vs. Real

Unlike real life–in scripted life you force yourself to move toward pain. You force the hero to make the decision and perform the action that will put him/her at the most risk. Not only does this action then have the outcome of insuring your hero is in greater danger, but with the danger there is also a sense of raised stakes. The sense of time running out. Each action has greater consequence. Every misguided decision, now makes the audience realize that your hero may not be worthy of the journey. This creates anxiety in your audience which translates on screen as tension and suspense. Your hero, because of fear and avoidance, may not have the skill, courage or will. He/she may go through a gauntlet of obstacles, barriers, and reversals, only to be defeated by a relentless antagonist.

Tension and suspense are the elements of any good movie that keeps your audience in the seats. They can’t watch–but, oh my! they also can’t keep from watching. You’ve been, there. Right? Late at night you catch Hitchcock’s Psycho.  You think you’re above it, a little too sophisticated to fall for the manipulation of the master, but scene by scene the hero is maneuvered into the trap. The hero, making one bad decision after another, is finally caught in the web constructed by Hitchcock himself. You feel yourself squirming, knowing that too many audiences over the years have made the attempt of willing Janet Leigh to make another choice–a better choice, and perhaps survive. So much for sophistication. In every airing of the classic, she dies again.  Graphically.

We Watch Movies to Feel Something

Old Yeller dies and claims an emotional toll each time it is scheduled on a late night channel. What thinking, feeling human being could hold back the sobs–knowing Old Yeller’s courage and ultimate sacrifice for the family he loves? You’d have to be a certified sociopath not to cry when the death of Old Yeller finally plays in the final scenes. As a reward for our grief in this coming of age story, we are presented with a puppy–an off-spring of Old Yeller to be named Young Yeller, insuring that in death there is still victory.

It is evident in the movies we watch and love, our heroes who are tested greatly, fall and rise again, push through their own bad decisions and find a way to make it right–are the heroes and movies that sustain in our memories and in our hearts. We embrace heroes who prove themselves through the worst of conditions. In fact, we identify so strongly with the heroes of these classic movies, they become a shortcut to define the elements of our own lives.

We’ve all prayed for a Rocky moment. We’ve celebrated deeper and abiding love in a Harry met Sally relationship based on friendship first. We’ve all come to a place of forgiveness for a flawed parent in a Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Movies define and celebrate our own humanity. That humanity is defined by shared pain.

Look at a long list of classic movies from the last one-hundred years. You can be guaranteed a memorable hero who through the course of the story moves from reluctance in Act One, recovery from mistakes in the opening scene sequences of Act Two, then finally realizing the greater purpose of the goal set forth, embraces the quest at the film’s mid-point–knowing the consequence of failure.

It is the decision of going forward in the face of past failure, joined with the knowledge of your antagonist’s intention of meting out further punishment, more extreme pain–that makes your hero the hero.

The Writer’s Pain

So, where does the writer find the emotional material to create pain in scenes that will translate in conflict for the audience?

Well, it seems we are fully loaded with everything we need to make that happen. Every moment of pain and discomfort that you have survived by fortitude and humor is part of the matrix of emotional history that you will call on to make your hero come alive.

Celebrate your pain. Hug yourself, then create pain in your hero.

It is why audiences pay to see a movie.

It’s the reason we love movies.

It is the reason we write.

Loving you, dear writer.

Write on!

ProPath Screenwriting