Monday, January 27, 2014

Make it Hurt so Good!

By Karen Albright Lin

We writers are sadists. Whether we tell our stories through novels, screenplays or shorts, they are more powerful if we appeal to the masochist in all of us. We beat our readers down, humiliate them, insult them, make them face their worst fears. To thank us, they return for more.   

There are many great tools for making it hurt.

By Tibor Kádek (Kandy Talbot) (Own work) [GFDL
or CC-BY-3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
One thing you can do is yank them around until they suffer WHIPLASH. It makes the heart race and it hurts so good. Think of the sudden reversal in The Terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s antagonist character is blown up in his car. We sigh in relief, expecting the happily-ever-after denouement. Suddenly a metallic skeleton—sans artificial flesh—emerges from the car, and the murderous chase is on again.

EXCRUCIATING UNCERTAINTY can be as maddening as a strap of leather dangling from a spike-clad sadist’s hand. In a Western we might wonder if the good guy will win a gunslinger fast draw or if the bad guy will cheat and turn early, gun drawn. In Science Fiction we may wonder whether the worm hole will tear apart the ship or pull it into a parallel universe.

By Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
PROBING TOOTHACHES, we watch Natural Born Killers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Final Destination, eating popcorn as we cringe. Most excruciating, one I can’t get out of my head, is the sans-anesthesia “dentistry” performed on poor Dustin Hoffman by Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man. My worst case of movie painful probing was watching the indie version of White Dahlia directed by Ulli Lommel. I had to turn it off ten minutes into it. I’m not that much of a masochist. 

Then there is the more lighthearted THRILL OF THE CLUMSY FALL. It’s why we watch Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed and Chevy Chase in National Lampoons’ Vacation, and why we enjoy endearing Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. How can you not be tickled as you flash back to scenes with master klutz, Jim Carey, today’s younger version of Dick Van Dyke.

We movie goers and readers are so very masochistic that we SUBJECT OURSELVES TO ILLNESS:  cancer in Beaches and Grand Torino, ALD in Lorenzo’s Oil, AIDS in both Philadelphia and one of the greatest character flicks, In America.

We’ll TAKE ON OTHERS’ DISABILITIES as we do in sensitively handled Sessions, My Left Foot, and Intouchables. We’re willing to experience weaknesses that are even harder to imagine in fantasies like The Time Traveler’s Wife and gripping true stories like that of Helen Keller.

S&M is, in part, about humiliation. What’s more humiliating than EXPOSING OUR WARTS TO THE WORLD?  Picking at one’s character flaws can be as painful as a table saw accident. Think Jim Carrey in Liar Liar and Woody Allen in just about every one of his neurosis movies.

We willingly FACE THE WORST OF HUMANITY in Schindler’s List, Blood Diamond and, on a micro-masochistic scale, reality shows where mismatched people are forced to live together, leading to backstabbing, bullying, and shunning. Then there are the Jackass movies that speak for themselves.

By Tor Erik Gorud (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
We so willingly self-flagellate that we volunteer to SUFFER HEARTACHE AND REJECTION as Adam Sandler did in my favorite movie of his--Spanglish, PAY A HEAVY PRICE FOR GUILT as Michael Douglas did in Fatal Attraction, and WE LET LOVE HURT SO GOOD as he and Kathleen Turner did in War of the Roses, and Brad and Angelina did in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. We like to see love interests fail before they unite as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan did in When Harry Met Sally.

We’ll TAKE ON RESPONSIBILITIES WE CAN’T HANDLE as in The Santa Clause, Bruce Almighty, Night at the Museum and the painfully tender best foreign film, Amour.

We DIVE INTO UNCOMFORTABLE POLITICS (Air Force One and Wag the Dog) and VENTURE ONTO UNCOMFORTABLE GROUND as they do in Snuff, Boogie Nights, and 50 Shades of Gray.

We’ll allow ourselves to be TRAPPED (127 Hours and Panic Room), DEPRIVED (Castaway), HOMELESS (ET and Will Smith’s I am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness).

We’ll readily BECOME FOOLS (Dumb and Dumber, Zoolander and Blades of Glory).

We’ll be SHUNNED (Memoirs of a Geisha and Fiddler on the Roof), IMPRISONED (Gladiator and Shawshank Redemption), and MISUNDERSTOOD (12 Monkeys, Elephant Man and Sixth Sense).

We willingly FACE OUR GREATEST WEAKNESSES as Denzel Washington’s character does in Flight.

We VENTURE INTO MADNESS as we do in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Beautiful Mind. We allow ourselves to be FISH OUT OF WATER as we see in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Training Day.

We’ll TEETER ON THE EDGE OF ANNIHILATION (Armageddon, An Inconvenient Truth, and Star Wars)

We’ll even join friends at the theater on a Friday to CONFRONT EVIL ITSELF (Constantine, The Exorcist, Dark Water, and Stigmata). We’ll SUFFER EMOTIONAL ISOLATION as in the disturbing movies Eraserhead and Welcome to the Dollhouse. We’ll even GO THROUGH HELL AND BACK as Robin Williams did in What Dreams May Come.

Sadism isn’t only about choosing subject matter. In all genres we writers delay payoff, and the waiting can be very painful indeed. Readers love that sort of pain. They are masochists. We writers are readers so we are in the business of S&M. We play both roles. In fact, we are such extreme masochists that we pay good money to share characters’ agonizing journeys when we buy books and attend movies.  Sure it’s self abuse to entertain ourselves by living through others’ suffering. But we do it to live out fantasies we can’t act on, to see others triumph over adversity which gives us hope, and to remind ourselves that our lives are not so bad. We want to feel the pain; we also want the pain to end. As sadists, we writers force our characters to wander through dark caves as stalactites are chipping off and falling, as water floods in. But we also want them to find the exit, want the human spirit to triumph as it does in the devastatingly powerful movie, Life is Beautiful. Readers and moviegoers return for more and more of that abuse. Why? Because it hurts so good! 

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. I do all that as a reader (and movie nut). To totally stress myself, I recently watched Deliverance again. Oh, to write a story that sets my readers on edge so well....

    1. Oh that's a good example. I remember a man on man rape in that one. And there was a Stephen King movie - that he even had a bit part in - where someone shoved a pencil into someone's ear. Ugh!

  2. hehe - yes! Bring on the pain. How boring would a story be if everything went just peachy?

    1. Yes... exactly. Every movie, every book has some sadism in it...otherwise where's the tension? As Freud said, "The release of that tension is a fundamental human behavioral reflex." What creates more tension that being in a masochist moment?

  3. No gain. Great post, Inky!

    1. Thanks, Frank! Your THE UNINVITED was uber painful! Works. Karen

  4. Great post, Karen! Your analogies are apt, and remind me of the writer Janet Burroway's wonderful remark that in fiction, "only trouble is interesting."

    1. Thanks for reading the post, Gail. As Freud said, "The release of that tension is a fundamental human behavioral reflex." Karen


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