Editing Principle 22: Referred Pain [UPDATED]

I’m fascinated by a physiological phenomenon in which a problem in one part of the body causes soreness or tenderness in a different part. A stressed cervical vertebrae, for instance, may be experienced as acute pain in the right shoulder—with no experience of pain in the neck, where the vertebrae actually is. This is known as "referred pain"; where the source of the pinch and where we feel it are not the same place.

I first learned of the phenomenon thanks to Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who used Referred Pain as the title of her 2004 story collection. And actually the idea of referred pain is hugely helpful in the editorial process.

Ignorance of how referred pain functions in narratives is time-consuming because it can lead writers to try to work out problems where the problems aren't, and in some cases, when the real problem, the actual reason that the article / chapter / book isn't jelling, is anywhere from two paragraphs to 100 pages elsewhere.

The film editor Walter Murch—absolute genius—described how referred pain played out when showing movies to test audiences. Let’s say that after the test screening, 80% of the audience reports that they didn’t like a particular scene. A skittish director may then think: Damn. I need to fix that scene.

But a more experienced director, Murch argued, would know that the reason the audience didn't enjoy a particular scene may be because they didn't possess a crucial bit of information before seeing it. Perhaps they didn't understand how intimately connected two characters were, or how complex their motivations for undertaking a certain action were.

The scene might work beautifully, however, if another scene were written and inserted into the story earlier. Then, though the part that 80% of the audience said was no good was no good hasn’t been touched or altered in any way, the work as a whole suddenly sings.

UPDATE: Just discovered this Billy Wilder quote which says roughly the same thing quite nicely: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

Megan Hustad