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Theatrics of Pain

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Combat choreography is often done using explicit and implicit cooperation by all involved to minimize injuries while doing maneuvers that remain extremely dangerous. To help maintain the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, the person at the receiving end of the dangerous maneuver must appear to show that the move hurt. This is the Theatrics of Pain.

Usually, it is quite easy to tell in wrestling if someone has been injured for real or is "selling" the move by its absence. It is harder in film and television because the stuntmen (whose job it is to do all the dangerous maneuvers) are trained to handle such situations professionally in a contained environment—and such things are all behind the scene anyway. note 

When a wrestler pretends to be uninjured by the move, this is the No-Sell. When an actor does, it is The Stoic or Made of Iron.

Sometimes, wrestlers will hit too hard. This is called "stiffness." Usually, it's harder to show any level of pain other than the true level, making them difficult to work with. That can happen in film and TV, too; we are less likely to see it there, however, because of the magic of editing.

A common place to find unscripted Theatrics of Pain is in Association Football (which goes by its surname "football" in most places and its nickname "soccer" in several countries). The injury is usually vaguely real, but typically so minor that even a five-year-old would laugh it off in normal circumstances. However, since injuries get penalties for the other team, and potentially get your team the advantage, many players sell even the most minor injuries with shrieks of pain, theatrical rocking, and, if possible, rivers of tears, in order to convince the referees that they're serious. Why referees haven't adopted a rule of "If you're not bleeding profusely/can't walk/can still play, you don't deserve the foul" is beyond many fans of the sport (particularly English-speaking ones; the tactic is perceived as a hallmark of non-Anglo, and specifically Latin American/European play). note 

Compare to Reality Is Unrealistic.


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  • Superman in any given media is reduced to a pain riddled heap around kryptonite. Often his anguished reaction is over-the-top in order to emphasis how painful the experience is to him as he rarely feels discomfort, never mind unspeakable agony. Interestingly one of the great criticisms of Superman is that he is either being beaten near to death or feels no pain at all. What exactly does "invulnerable" mean?


  • The Three Stooges, notorious for their very physical slapstick humor, had ways of making things look far more painful than they really were. For instance, Moe's Eye Poke was really a poke to the eyebrows which Curly, Larry or Shemp would sell by flinching and covering their eyes. The accompanying "doing" sound made it more convincing and humorous as well, in fact the foley work in general made Moe's attacks seem more harsh than they actually were.
  • In The Return of the King, Saruman gets stabbed in the back. Peter Jackson attempted to direct Christopher Lee on how someone reacts when stabbed like that. Lee replied that he knew perfectly well how people really reacted, from his time in the Special Forces during WWII. Make of that what you will.

     Professional Wrestling 
Wrestling has the most literal version; the theatrics of pain is called "selling" in that medium. Many wrestlers find themselves praised or derided based on their ability (or lack thereof) to sell an opponent's attacks. See also Wrestling Psychology.
  • Mr. Perfect's legendary career of bouncing around like a pinball for his opponents cannot be overstated. Perfect was nimble and dexterous enough that he would practically pirouette off of a simple punch.
  • Ric Flair sold like he'd been shot. One of his trademark bits is getting the crap beat out of him, then getting up, taking a few dizzy, awkward steps and falling on his face. Longtime fans call it the Flair Flop.
    • If Ric Flair wants to bladenote , Ric Flair will fucking blade. His bleached blond hair will quickly turn orange-red, and his entire face will be caked in blood in moments. Even a simple knockdown punch will have him banging his own fist against his forehead until he's more bloody face than man.
  • One of the most memorable examples of a wrestler over-selling is the Shawn Michaels vs Hulk Hogan match at WWE's Summerslam 2005.
  • Dolph Ziggler is probably one of the best sellers in WWE history, to the point where there are montages on YouTube on him doing nothing but selling. Although sometimes he gets criticized for taking crazy bumps such that they look cartoony, still others like him for emulating the likes of Mr. Perfect and Ric Flair who revolutionized how entertaining selling could be and for making his opponents look strong. Speaking of which...
  • Triple H. For all the flak he gets for his burials and metaphorical shovel, when Hunter wants to get a guy over, he will get that guy over. His selling is as good as Ziggler's — as shown when Roman Reigns beat him down at the end of TLC 2015.
  • Almost every time "Stone Cold" Steve Austin hits The Rock with the stunner, Rock backflips.

  • Demonstrated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when Guildenstern seizes the Player's dagger and tries to stab him to death. Guildenstern thinks the Player has been Killed Off for Real, when the Tragedians start applauding and congratulating the Player on a death scene well played. (He considers his own performance "merely competent.")


  • In Punch-Out!!, especially the Wii version, boxers react in differing degrees to punches; depending on how you hit them, they'll either stand there stunned and take a flurry, take one hit and back off, or, depending on if you knock them down with a jab or a body blow, get sent flying or twirling backwards instead of merely falling over as real boxers usually do. Of course, the comical reactions are there to help the player and give them a rush from clobbering their opponent.
  • In the Disgaea series, recurring character Axel has his "My Heart Shakes" special attack, which places him and his target in a movie shoot where he builds up energy in a ridiculously flashy manner before stumbling into his victim with a punch that does zero damage and makes a comical sound effect. The target proceeds to hurt themselves by overdoing the theatrics, reeling backwards before exploding.

  • As mentioned, often very blatant in soccer/football, often with the commentators snarkily pointing out the attempt. One of the worst on recent memory was a quarterfinal game in the 2011 Women's World Cup. With Brazil up 2-1 and extra time almost expired, Brazilian player Ericka suddenly crumbled to the ground in apparent agony, and after a four minute performance (and remember, the clock doesn't stop in soccer), jumped up off the stretcher taking her off the field and sprinted back into position. (Ian Darke, the British commentator for the game, drily noted her "miraculous recovery".) However, she was hoist by her own petard because the referee, annoyed, gave her a yellow card and added three more minutes of extra time. The US scored in this extra time and eventually won the game in the shoot-out.

     Western Animation 
  • Exaggerated in an episode of Spongebob Square Pants, when Patrick fakes a fight with Spongebob for the sake of making him look tough enough to be admitted into a bar. He somehow manages to get a black eye, loses some teeth, gets hit with some Metronomic Man Mashing, and finally, gets a wedgie before being punted into the distance; all without Spongebob so much as laying a finger on him (Which gets lampshaded by an impressed onlooker).