Bleeding in Books

I just started reading The Girl on the Train (2015) by Paula Hawkins. Immediately, I noticed a line that made me wonder, as it does in any other book.


Every time I read about somebody biting themselves or clenching their fists hard enough to make themselves bleed, I am skeptical. I mean, I understand that the human body bleeds, and that people can bite through lips or rip open hands, but I don’t understand how this is done in sheer anxiety or upset.

I bit my lower lip so hard it bled one time. I was about three years old, and I don’t remember it, but apparently I tripped and fell hard enough into a dense object that I needed stitches. I still have the scar.

Recently, my daughter bit her bottom lip with her two front teeth hard enough to draw blood. Lots of blood. We were at my dad’s house in Missouri, and while he was gone taking my grandma to her doctor’s appointment, little Daphne fell while playing with the dog and while I was in the shower. I emerged from the shower to the sound of my little sister Afton saying, with great concern and urgency in her voice, “Emily! Emily?” I came out half dressed to find my daughter covered in blood. All over her face. In her mouth. Dripping down her sweater. We rushed her to a local clinic, where they checked her out and found that she had almost bitten all the way through her lower lip, but not quite. We got her cleaned up and calmed down, and she was finally able to tell us that she had tripped over the dog while playing “house” with it in the upstairs bathroom. It hadn’t bitten her, and she certainly hadn’t bitten herself over emotional concern while thinking about the mysteries of life. She hadn’t bitten through her lip in fear or anxiety, or when closing her eyes and counting to ten.

And yet, I read about characters in novels constantly feeling so much anguish that they accidentally make themselves bleed with teeth and nails. Is this a possibility? Are such descriptions meant to evoke a familiar response from me? Can something like this really, truly happen? I guess it could, if one is scared enough or has not groomed one’s fingernails in quite some time.

What are your thoughts on this? Is this a viable way for a character to experience anxiety or stress in a novel? I’m not convinced.

82 thoughts on “Bleeding in Books

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    1. I think writers always tend to overreact in books, especially when it comes to showing emotions and feelings and I’m thinking, that the reason why they, and I my self do it, is because we only have our words to show the reader how he/she feels in our minds-because the writer already has the feeling in his mind very clearly and real. So, yeah, over-reacting and being dramatic for me is a way for writers to show as much as they can how the character feels,while a simple “I bit my lips hard” wouldn’t do it.

    2. Hmm that’s an interesting thought. I think writers over exaggerate to try and really show the readers what the character is feeling. Whenever I write anything I find it much easier to write about extremes as it is much easier to keep the reader’s attention if there is a lot going on. If you’re writing about everyday life then the story tends to not be as interesting. A truly great writer can make any ‘boring’ scenario as captivating as an action scene, and I think that one technique is over exaggerating things. So it’s not necessarily going to be 100% realistic, but after all it is a fiction story so I’m sure little things that don’t happen in real life are included in books everywhere!

      1. I love what you have described here about writing, and how masterful many writers are. They really do take “boring” scenarios and make them gripping. Nicely put!

  1. Thanks for that. Now my lip’s sore, because I’m the idiot that has to try 😛 Anyway, I suppose it would be possible, but even with my relatively high pain threshold I couldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s very realistic for most people to do this in very stressful situations.
    The only way I can see this happen is as a form of self harm, or perhaps in a situation where something so horrible has happened that the brain is too busy trying to process that instead of the pain from biting your lip, but those are exceptional situations, and I don’t see them happening like they’re described in books.

  2. I remember reading this and thinking the exact same thing, I think it’s supposed to enhance the feelings of the reader but in my mind I was wondering how difficult it would be to bite my lip and make it bleed. Not quite what the author was hoping for I’m sure! 😉

    Great post 🙂 xx

    1. In books, it seems so commonplace, but perhaps this represents more of a problem if it happens in real life. I’ve heard of trichotillomania (don’t know if I spelled it right), a disorder where people pull out their hair. But it isn’t just a one-time thing.

  3. I wonder about it, too. Especially when they cause themselves to bleed, but nothing more about it is said – they bled, but they’re okay. Not even a mark now. Same can be said for characters that get hurt or wounded in minor incidents, but the wounds are large “gashes” or holes ripped into their bodies. After this keeps happening, I wonder how they’re still fighting, or even alive!

    1. Ha! Your comment reminds me of when my husband and I watched 24, and we always had a good laugh when Jack Bauer would be within inches of his life after being beaten or electrocuted, and then he’d be fine and running 10 minutes later, according to the “real time” clock that show had.

  4. Ha, I am skeptical too. Feels like an over-used way to show the depth or fear or anxiety in a character. I’m curious to know how you like this book? I’ve heard it is good but for some reason I keep hesitating to read it, I do like a good suspense story though…

    1. Well, now that I’m further into it today than I was yesterday, I can say that I like it and that I’m intrigued and want to keep reading. (I got your book!)

  5. I didn’t mind it so much in this one. But I think it’s way overused in many YA books, mostly to show how feminine and gentle the heroine is. Ugh!

  6. As well as too many other things,,,I wonder about that as well Emily. I agree it is most likely for mind picturing drama, but for those of us who are a bit “too” left brained, maybe it should read..
    ” and I was biting by lip so hard it could have bled”. I’m not sure books written for left brain, logical, readers would be best sellers..I’m just sayin!!!
    Loving reading your blog, Thanks, Anita

    1. Ha ha. That’s such a good point. I read it and I think, “Now, can I really do that?” I guess creative description isn’t necessarily meant to be tested. Thanks for reading my blog!

  7. I always wonder the same thing! It seems to happen a lot. I can’t imagine doing it to myself, but maybe that is just a sign that I have led a cushy life. 🙂 I also wonder about the fact that it’s not mentioned again as something annoying that they keep forgetting that they did to themselves, and now they keep re-opening it everytime they smile or pick something up.

    1. Yes! If these wounds are that serious, they should continue to be featured in the narrative, especially if it doesn’t jump too far ahead in time. Now that I’m further into the book, she does suffer some other injuries, and those keep reappearing and aching. So the author did well on that one!

  8. And not just biting your lip till it bleeds – what about griping something so tightly your knuclkes turn white? I’ve tried this and it did not work.

    Also, in Lord of the Rings, can someone really bite through someone else’s FINGER?! You would have to break the bone, muscle, tendons, and whatever else is in your finger, all in a matter of about three seconds before they figured out what you were doing.

  9. She might be biting the interior of her lip. Regardless, I agree that it is done for effect, and in this story, whether or not you think it’s overdone, I’d venture to say that the author employs self- inflicted bleeding symbolically. Bleeding is the purgation of a substance vital to one’s survival, done silently, and in this case, among others who are indifferent to/ignorant of the protagonist’s struggles. Having read Girl on the Train, I view this is self-sabotaging and self-destructive behavior, which reflects the characteristics of this unreliable narrator. As a reader, I wanted to reach into the book and pull her into a twelve step program, and have nothing to do with her until she completed it! She’s frustrating, but also engaging on some level: she makes herself bleed, and she does other things which someone not struggling with her past or burdens wouldn’t do, but her bleeding highlights, also, the reactions of those around her getting on with their lives while hers is spiraling in a cycle of depression and danger. It’s her blood…why can’t she stanch it?! Because bleeding – and making mistakes and feeling and suffering- is human.

    1. Very well said. Now that I have read more of it, I can see how the blood is symbolic, with other injuries as well, and how you wanted to pull her into a twelve-step program. Me too!

    1. (Oops, sorry!) ….. sharing a devotion to drama in this book. Reality is way down the list. I wanted to like the book because obsession is such an interesting issue in fiction. But I found the book amateurish, as if had been written by a teenager. I am prepared to believe the obsession and pain the character feels is possible, but the portrayal of it here never rang true.

      I should say that I was so frustrated that I never finished it, reading about half before giving up. I can take an unreliable narrator, but a boring, unreliable narrator is way too frustrating. The book is wildly popular, so maybe the author got it together after I gave up. But, I’m skeptical.

      1. Interesting. I think I will end up finishing it, but I can see what you are saying about not necessarily feeling like the obsession rings true. I do like the terse, compact style the author uses. To me, it echoes the way the protagonist is living her life. She’s just barely making it and putting one foot in front of the other.

        1. I’m glad you brought up the bleeding issue, Emily! I read this book a while ago and my own book club didn’t want to read it then, so I’m happy to have an outlet for discussion here.

      2. Ha ha, you’re definitely right about the devotion to drama! Is self-inflicted bleeding the new fainting?

        And I’d account for its popularity by comparing it to an accident that a person knows (s)he shouldn’t gawk at but out of morbid curiosity, but still does. Call it the literary rubberneck factor…plus, thanks, in part, to Gone Girl, this seems to be the era of the unreliable female narrator.

  10. I think it’s a bad cliche, and a sign of bad writing–it means that not only did the author simply parrot a phrase that’s been used a million times, but he or she didn’t bother to think about whether it actually reflected reality. Lazy, unoriginal, and poorly observed. I’m definitely not going to read that book.

    1. Oh, this line shouldn’t turn you off to the whole book! It seems to get a bit better as it goes on. I’m actually really enjoying it.

  11. Hahaha, I had never noticed this but now it sticks out horribly! I think it’s just for the dramatic effect, and like dunaganagain said, a very bad cliche.

  12. I completely agree! Sure we’ve all bitten our lip a bit or maybe pushed our fingernails into the palm of our hands, but draw blood? No. Way.

    However, most of the time when I’m reading I guess I just gloss over that type of description and I don’t really think about the reality of what the writer is saying.

    1. I think I’m so used to it that I tend to gloss over it too, but now that I have this blog, when I read it, I thought, “I really want to know if others are confused by this as well!” It turns out, they are!

  13. Haha, it does sound quite ridiculous and unrealistic. People in books who make themselves bleed by merely biting their lip must have paper-thin skin!! I agree with you — I’m not convinced by this over-used cliché either.

  14. Everyone has their own way of expressing emotions. Thought biting my lips and digging my fingers into my palm till it bleeds are a bit too far for me. And I rather read another ways of describing anxiety, which reminds me of the conversation I had with my son a while ago. We were walking in the evening in the country side and I said something about one of my fears while walking alone is being attack by some stranger. He said he rather be attack by someone than being steadily followed by a person in a safe distance in a leisurely pace.

    1. Interesting. I think I would rather not be attacked at all! But I can see how the following might be more unnerving for a long period of time. The anxiety would get to you!

  15. I wonder about that too. The only thing I do like that in real life is bite the dead skin off my lip and sometimes there’s a little bit of blood from that, but you’d think if a writer meant that rather than chomping down on the lip itself, they could say so in so many words.

    1. Yes! Of course sometimes we bleed because of dead skin or accidentally biting the inside of our mouths, but this seems a little too much. 🙂

  16. It’s much harder for a writer to find a new and fresh way to express emotion through physicality than to regurgitate the good old classics! But for me, the ‘good old ones’ clang out from the page and take me out of the story. My pet hates are similar to most of yours—biting lip, clenching fists, furrowed brows. But, like I said, it’s damn hard finding new ways to say these things!

  17. Interesting – maybe some characters feel a release of stress by biting or clenching to make themselves bleed, but I agree it sounds unrealistic or overly dramatic.

  18. I read the book and really liked it. Her character obviously has a lot going on, and although I don’t think a normal person would do that, she’s clearly not “normal”.

  19. When I’m in a public setting where I can’t get away (like at church) but something distressing occurs, I sometimes dig my nails into my palms and concentrate on the pain to avoid showing a reaction on my face, but I’ve never been able to do it enough to bleed. Cutting to deal with emotional pain isn’t as uncommon as we’d like to believe, so extreme anxiety probably could lead to biting until the surface breaks, even if it is a cliche.

  20. As others have expressed, I felt it was part and parcel of her inability to deal with life. Actually, I know a woman who files her nails to “points” and she has accidentally scratched me before and drawn a bit of blood, so not sure it couldn’t happen like that. And actually, I have drawn blood from my own lip when I was extremely anxious as a child. However, living with my mother might initiate just such a relatively unbelievable yet possible response from many people! I guess I didn’t consider it out of character or unrealistic. So interesting the varied responses!! 🙂 I’ll be interested to see your overall response to this book!

    1. Wow. Files her nails to points? Why? I could see it happening then. And yes, I understand what it’s like to have a mother that could evoke such a response. Thanks for helping me to see it a different way.

  21. Often depictions of anxiety such as the ones you describe, are cliches. I never draw blood when I am anxious! I think or Thurs sometimes attempt to show not tell and and fall short.

  22. It all depends on the person. I can easily make my lips bleed but I DON’T do it when I’m anxious. Normally it happens when I’m bored. LOL.

    I do think the biting lip, biting fingers, thing is pretty cliche and a way to show anxiety. I’m 100% sure Twilight ruined biting lips forever. 😛 Or was that 50 Shades? Hard to tell the two apart…

  23. When it comes to writing, I tend to add details and strong feelings to my writing to bring out the writing. Writers do exaggerate so they can bring out the feelings and emotions. Writers have their words to show and beautiful words are like a beautiful picture, you just can’t take your eyes off of it.

  24. I also think it’s a dramatic effect. Unless you’re a cutter and tend to self harm or it’s from a traumatic experience (falling, car accident, etc)-most people stop at the point of pain and thus would stop at the point well before bleeding. Good observation though!

  25. I think it is an acceptable point. I have also thought so when I came across actions like this in many stories(biting one’s lips and clutching their hair in a fit of anger). I don’t think many people will do this when they are in such a condition. In good narrations usually we don’t find this. They make us feel the emotions of the characters through realistic descriptions. Narrations in which we find truth and genuineness, the very essence of literature are the ones that touch the reader’s heart and strike a chord with them.

  26. I think a better description would be what t feels like to chew the inside of your lip and/or cheek raw. I think that is far more common as an anxiety response. If described well, I think it could be more vivid than biting ones self so hard that they bleed.

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