7

I'm attempting to write one or two chapters with one of my main characters in a jail cell. It's important to the character development that he is isolated for an extended period of time, antagonized by others and also made to feel powerless. Therefore a jail cell seemed to be the perfect location for this character development to happen.

However, after now planning the close of my story around what occurs in this section of the narrative, it has just occurred to me that in all of the books I have ever read, I can't think of a single time I have read a full chapter from the perspective of a character who has been captured/ imprisoned and it has actually been interesting and engaging.

I'm not sure why this is, because it happens in even exceptional books that are otherwise flawless. I'm not sure if this is a personal dislike or if it is something that others also consider to be an issue.

I've read plenty of part-chapters, or chapters from the POV of a captor/ jailer that I consider good, but when it is 1 or 2 full chapters written from the perspective of the prisoner it just feels like a chore to read these sections, even if they are broken up between chapters that progress the story with different characters elsewhere.

I would assume that it is because it feels like it halts the flow of the story (even when it doesn't, for example when there is character development or the plot moves forward somehow within the jail). Being trapped in a single location feels unnatural to any narrative, particularly when other chapters are seeing a constant progression of story/ settings etc.

Are there any ways that I can keep a full chapter set in a jail cell interesting?

Sub-question: Are there any examples of similar chapters where the POV character has been captured/ imprisoned that you thought were good/ had interesting elements?


Note: In the story it is a new prison, so the character is the first & only prisoner, therefore adding other characters who are prisoners is unfortunately not an option, as this was the only way that I could think of enhancing the story.

If it turns out that there is no way that I can make these chapters good using this set up then I am willing to change them, but as it would mean me changing how I get to the climax of my story it would be ideal if I didn't have to change the narrative too drastically.

  • You can watch an interview of some prisoner. I'm sure you can find some online – Shevliaskovic Feb 23 '16 at 17:41
  • Have you heard of intimate theater ("Kammerspiel")? These stories usually stay in one place and revolve around the psychological development of the characters. I find them immensely fascinating, albeit hardly classifiable as your standard Saturday night entertainment. Your chapter could work very well as a Kammerspiel. Think of The Revenant or Robinson Crusoe. You don't need interaction with others to create a captivating story. – Filip Feb 24 '16 at 14:09
  • How about Thoreau's The Night I Spent in Jail? You could always give your character a roommate. – Stu W Feb 25 '16 at 2:50
  • How much time can pass in the span of this chapter? If you can cover several days (or longer) then there are opportunities to show the effects on the prisoner over time, but if the next chapter takes place the day after the imprisonment then that won't work so well. So, any constraints here? – Monica Cellio Mar 6 '16 at 3:50
  • Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut is an entire novel set in a prison, all told from the POV of one prisoner. There are flashbacks from his pre-prison life, but the narration all takes place behind bars. It's excellent. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Night – Cyn Jan 23 at 6:17
9

"it just feels like a chore to read these sections"

For me, I typically find it a chore to read long stretches of lengthy description. The key for writing a chapter like you mentioned is dialogue. Chapters without much dialogue tend to be boring. Obviously this is not always the case, but dialogue definitely speeds things up and engages the reader. I once read that dialogue is the sugar of writing. To keep your reader interested, you have to give them a little sugar every once in a while.

The problem with chapters where your MC is alone is that he doesn't have anyone to converse with (besides himself, but that's not a proper conversation). I find that when I write chapters with little to no dialogue I worry about readers finding it engaging.

A few things you could do to make up for the lack of dialogue:

  • Include lots of action. Make things happen to keep the reader interested. A brawl outside his prison cell. A fistfight. Someone trying to escape, maybe attacking a guard. These bits of action will hook your reader into a chapter that might otherwise be dull.
  • Interesting internal monologue. Try to make his thoughts thought-provoking and interesting to the reader. Avoid repetitive thoughts and try not to make his thought process unrealistic or too dismal. If he's sitting in a prison cell all depressed with thoughts like "I'm never getting out of here" or "I hate it here, I hate myself, etc." then you will quickly lose the reader.
  • Don't clutter. What I mean by this is don't include unnecessary description or words just to fill up a page, especially in a chapter that you are already concerned about being boring. Make it sharp and concise and not too wordy.
  • Add dialogue. Even if the guy is in a prison cell alone, you can try to include dialogue to sweeten it up and keep the reader going. Can he hear other inmates talking? Are they planning an escape? Does a guard say anything when he walks by his cell? What about when the MC eats lunch? You could have him talk to the other prisoners in the lunchroom. Or he can even talk to himself, just make sure to keep it realistic.

If the chapter is later in the book where your reader is already attached to the characters and immersed in the story, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Especially if you know it moves the story forward and develops the character. As long as it's not boring the reader will stick through a couple chapters even if there is minimal dialogue.


As for your subquestion, I read Cinder and the rest of The Lunar Chronicles a few weeks ago and she has a few prison scenes which are all very interesting. I haven't read a single chapter by that woman that isn't completely captivating. Marissa Meyer does a fabulous job with balance character devlopment and plot. Anyway, I highly recommend checking out her scenes where the MC is stuck in a prison cell.

There were many interesting elements in her writing that kept the prison scene engaging, but here are a few:

  • The MC is a cyborg and has an interface inside her mind (so she can look things up on the internet while she's in the cell and see what's going on in the outside world).
  • A few different people come to visit her (one of them brings her a gift which she later uses to escape).
  • The MC's internal monologue is not overdone and I think that's one of the things I really like about it. It isn't thought-based, but rather the chapters are pushed forward by actions and events.
  • The prison scene doesn't last too long (not more than a chapter or two) and she ends up escaping. The escape was a whole chapter by itself and while I could see how it could have been boring, Marissa Meyer made sure to steer clear of any boringness!

A good author knows how to couple up character development with plot to make scenes that engage the reader in both ways at once. This makes for a really powerful scene. If say, for instance, a main character betrays everyone else in a scene that is followed by a toe-curling fight (or some other action scene; maybe someone dying). It makes the scene very intense in a lot of ways and gives it a lot of depth.


EDIT: I see your note about not having any other prisoners. I think you could still make do with the scene. If you have a lot of interesting elements, I wouldn't fret. As long as it's interesting you won't have a problem. The MC can still converse with the guards perhaps. My advice is to try to keep the chapters of the MC by himself as short as possible. Include all the interesting elements and essential things you need for character development, but scrap the unnecessary description or boring monologue. Good luck.

One element you could try is having one of the guards slip him a note. Maybe the guard is somehow related to one of the MC's friends. The note could say anything. Are they trying as hard as they can to get him out? Are they informing him of what's happening in the outside world? You could do a few cool things with this concept.

One more note: You can add flashbacks while he's in the prison cell. That way, the reader gets some dialogue and a bit of the character's past. A nice tactic. With all that free time in the cell, he is bound to reminisce on his past at some point. Why not give the reader some of that to keep the prison chapters from being too dull?

  • If the MC is the only prisoner, then also the guards are likely to be bored, and more likely to interact with the sole prisoner in some way, if only to tell him how much they think he deserves the prison time. – celtschk Jan 23 at 7:26
4

It's important to the character development that he is isolated for an extended period of time, antagonized by others and also made to feel powerless.

If your character is stuck in one spot, antagonized by his enemies, and isolated from his allies, that sounds like quite a bit to go on.

  • He can't get out. How does he know? He has to try. So he tries a number of ways to escape. They all fail. Or more dramatically, one has a delayed success (which is the way he gets out at the end of this section).
  • He's isolated from his allies. Next he tries to send a message. Each way is blocked, or doesn't work, or just isn't feasible.
  • He's antagonized by his enemies. There may not be other prisoners there, but there can sure be jailors, leaders of his enemies, professional torturers. People come and go to torment him, or to offer false hope (he tries to get a message out through a guard who seems sympathetic, and then two scenes later finds out that the guard destroyed the message). And why can't there be other prisoners? Other people who aren't his allies or enemies but other victims, who are also being tortured?
  • He feels powerless. See the false hope above, and also the inability to help the other prisoners.

Your concern is that you don't want to spend two continuous chapters in this guy's head. So don't. Do other things with him.

4

Probably the reason most of the prison cell sections you read were boring is because there was no conflict. Stories are mostly about Person A wanting to do something, and Person B (or Thing A, or society or the universe) trying to stop them.

Of course in your situation person A wants to escape from the prison cell, but of course they can't and they know they can't, so there is no active conflict because they aren't really pursuing their goal, they're just moaning about it. And they mostly aren't interacting with people, they are only interacting with themselves. Hence it's really difficult to find conflict. But not impossible.

I found this thread because I'm also trying to write a prison cell scene and it wasn't working. The person above who said your guy needs to try different things and fail is probably right.

You said: 'It's important to the character development that he is isolated for an extended period of time, antagonized by others and also made to feel powerless.'

So what is he actively trying to do? And what is stopping him? And how does he change in order to overcome that thing?

He's isolated - so he's probably trying to stop himself from going crazy somehow. You get to decide what is the worst thing that is making him feel crazy, and how he overcomes that. This is the angle I'm going with with (my character was halfway to crazy before she got in the isolated prison cell). This is quite hard, so I don't recommend it much.

He's antagonised by others - hence conflict (presumably with prison guards etc). What is he trying to do and how do they stop him and beat him down? And how does he win through in the end (or make things worse)? This is easier and gives you action as well as conflict.

He's made to feel powerless - why is feeling powerless really bad for your character? What would he do to overcome that feeling? Would he retreat to a tiny corner of his world he can control? Or would he try to outsmart the guards by being a smart alec to get a rise out of them, to keep a feeling of control?

Whatever you do, if he actively tries to do something, something gets in his way, and he changes something in order to achieve his goal (even if that doesn't get him very far, just gets him to another problem), it's going to be better than agonising about his situation scene after scene without doing anything.

Anyway, hope this helps. Back to my character trying to stop herself from going crazy...

  • I think you've hit the nail on the head with a character needing to do something and finding some sort of conflict. It's boring to read about a character with zero agency, as they are just letting the story happen to them, but even trying and failing to escape allows them to have some control over their situation. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 23 at 12:42
3

Prison drama can be interesting and fascinating, actually. You can read books about real prison experiences for inspiration - I would recommend Inside: Life Behind Bars in America if you need a starting point. Also recall that several works of fiction revolve entirely around prison settings - Oz, Orange is the new Black, and the classic story/film The Shawshank Redemption leap immediately to mind. (Shawshank was inspired by the prison section of The Count of Monte Cristo).

What sets your story apart is that you are determined to not have other prisoners. This cuts down on a lot of dramatic potential - a reader can only take so much institutionalized sadism toward a sympathetic character before they lose interest.

I see three possible approaches:

  1. Tell the story of the characters who aren't in prison. How does the hero's absence affect them? What are the antagonists now able to accomplish? Does someone else try to take the hero's place, but with less effective results?

  2. If nothing interesting happens while the hero is locked up, then you can just skip ahead in time. The difference in characterization between the previous chapters and the subsequent ones might tell the story of his incarceration all by itself, if you do it right.

  3. If you are determined to show the character in prison, do it quickly. Describe the cell, the guards, the food. State how long he spends here. State how many months it took for him to finally give up hope. Make it very brief - a handful of carefully chosen descriptions can have the right emotional impact, without dragging the pacing of the story down at all.

Whatever you decide, you need to know ahead of time what the effect on your hero should be. This will shape the story of his time in prison.

  • The 2nd option is a good point. You could just skip ahead in time, maybe have some flashbacks of his time in prison, the boredom, etc. Especially if his prison life is very boring/repetitive. – Abs Feb 24 '16 at 13:28
3

A "prison chapter" should convey at least a sense of the boredom, tedium and desire to escape that the character experiences. Of course, that's no excuse for boring the reader.

If the character is interacting frequently with the guard, that seems like an easy enough situation to add interest to --they can be in conflict, or strike up an unlikely friendship, etc. The tough scenario, therefore, is the locked room.

In that case, I would think you'd want to focus on the character's internal life: Thoughts, plans of escape, regrets, flashbacks, fantasies, hallucinations, internal battles, etcetera. The novel that made Jean Genet famous was basically entirely a record of his sexual fantasies in prison.

0

Have you ever done any time? If not, it is really, really hard to understand it. That is why the prison scenes you referred to were uninteresting. Those writers are the ones who did not do time. When writers write something they don’t know, it is empty, hollow, staged.

But the thing is, if you are writing fiction, don’t use other fiction as research. Read non-fiction. There are plenty of non-fiction books written by people who were imprisoned, about their imprisonment. Read those books as your academic research.

You can also do practical research by getting a friend to lock you in a room for a weekend with nothing to read, no distractions, no comforts, no blanket, no conversation, and no food and water except what your friend provides, which he may or may not do on schedule and/or reliably. Have him give you a bologna sandwich for every meal also, and treat you with disrespect when he does so. And a bucket for waste that he may or may not collect later. That will give you just the tiniest taste of what it is like to be imprisoned, but what you learn will surprise you, and will inform your work immensely. At the end of the weekend, have your friend give you your writing tools along with your final imprisoned meal and you will likely write a scene that is 1000x better than before the weekend. You’ll understand the humiliation and helplessness your character is feeling. It will be life-changing, but then writing is supposed to be life-changing.

It’s like if you wanted to write a book about a character who uses a wheelchair. First step is to read non-fiction written by people who use wheelchairs. Extra marks if you also rent a wheelchair and spend a week in it.

If you don’t want to do either the academic or practical research or both, then change the jail setting to somewhere else that you already know about from your own life. There are lots of settings where a character is trapped and feels powerless and demoralized, like trapped in a job in a cubicle farm with crushing debt, or trapped in an abusive marriage, or trapped in their own body by a severe injury while gradually learning to walk again. If you have experience with any of those — or something similar — you can just write what you already know.

  • "if you are writing fiction, don’t use other fiction as research" Couldn't disagree more. If the author is wondering how to make a prison scene good or interesting, then he/she would do well to read good and interesting prison scenes, regardless of their status as fiction. The question is not about accuracy. – WolfeFan Feb 25 '16 at 3:54
  • I don't know that it follows that something written by a person with personal experience would be more entertaining. More accurate, sure, but more entertaining? I write computer software for a living. I've seen plenty of movies about computers that are far more exciting than real life. Like in real life, I have never, ever, had a computer explode because I entered paradoxical data. I've never had a computer suddenly become self-aware. An accurate story about software development would include lots of staff meetings and programmers trying to figure out how to get the syntax right. – Jay Jun 3 '18 at 4:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.