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I'm trying to write torture scenes but I'm not really all that confident about it since I've never written anything like it before and have never really witnessed anything violent. I know the methods and steps of the tortures I want to write about but it's more the description and how to write it without going too far that's hard for me.

Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I can write these scenes in a way that the reader will wince in pain, instead of cringing from a bad scene?

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    You didn't happen to read, by any chance, Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"? – Alexander Feb 20 at 17:17
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    It's a brutal slog, but I'd recommend reading The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. There's accounts of all manner of kinds of torture and violence, and different kind of torturers, and an exploration of the consequences of horrible experiences and how they can change people. (Plus, a lot of interesting history.) It's not short, though. – Jedediah Feb 20 at 22:07
  • @Alexander had a great book that shows it well, but Child of the Daystar also has some pretty great horror scenes painted in some pretty vivid imagery. – Anoplexian Feb 21 at 15:17
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If the torture scene is happening to your MC or your current narrator, instead of focusing on all the blood and gore which can make a lot of readers queasy or uncomfortable, focus on the narrator's agony. If your goal is to both portray the goriness of torture to send a message AND show your narrator's pain, and especially since you said yourself you haven't really witnessed anything gory or violent, you should watch a horror movie or at least read up on torture.

If the torture scene is happening to someone else and your narrator is watching, focus on the narrator's absolute horror and disgust at what they see. You don't have to do a play by play of every single action, but to show the reader why your narrator is so terrified, you should give the reader a taste of what the narrator sees.

If you're totally uncomfortable with blood and gore and you just can't get it to work in your writing, try psychological torture. This focuses almost completely on the mind, so you can take it wherever you want to.

8

All scenes have more than one thing going on. Scenes are never just a series of sequential facts, there are negotiations and compromises, misdirections and sacrifices – yes it's all scaled down to the one scene, but there is still the thing the character wants conflicted with the thing the character has. This is what the scene really is about.

The horror of the torture is like the scenery outside the train window for the torturer. He is not a slobbering maniac (that is movie over-acting). Torturer is going to enjoy the pleasantries about this "journey". It is a ride he has taken many times, and he knows the idea is to take it slowly to enjoy each small moment along the path (smell every flower), because it won't last long enough. He already knows the scenery, there won't be any surprises along the way, so there is actually an over-emphasis on the small details and subtleties. If he rushes it, it will be over too soon, so this is a refined pleasure, a rare wine that is sipped not gulped.

Now, along with the torturer on this pleasant train ride is the victim, and they are not experienced at all. They are expecting this brut force smack-around and they want it to be over. They are completely misjudging the pace that this journey is going to take. If they can speak, they are trying to provoke. If they can fight they will fight harder immediately because this is not a long-wait game, this needs to be over quickly. The torturer might even humor them a little, just to be funny, but that's not at all how it works.

So there are two very different goals for each, and this is outside whatever plot-oriented goals are forefront. This back-and-forth tempo fight is going to be an under-current to whatever the primary goals are. There will be many times where the torturer will stop and wait for the victim to stop resisting and settle back down to focus on the experience they are sharing together, like a parent allowing a child to burn through a tantrum. Every time this happens, the victim has lost a defense wall and the torturer becomes more intimate.

The victim assumes the idea is to make them blurt out the secrets during excruciating moments of pain. That's not how it really works. Those excruciating moments of pain are about getting the victim to raise and lower their defense walls. Every time a wall drops, he steps in a little closer and they begin again. Eventually, there are no more walls to drop. The torturer is inside with full access because the victim has no defenses and is completely passive. This is when the train ride is over. The torturer access the secrets without resistance, and there is nothing more to be enjoyed.

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    A "wonderful" rendition of this is in the torture scenes from Outlander. In particular, it is decidedly uncomfortable to see what it looks like once there are no more walls to be had. – Cort Ammon Feb 21 at 3:51
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You might find it helpful to look at the Torture Porn trope, to have a clearer idea of what to avoid. A work would be called "torture porn" when it appears to seek to disgust the reader/viewer while at the same time giving visceral thrills. Consequently, it would be full of "lovingly described" details of the torture.

Descriptions of pain and agony too can be "too much", in which case your reader would close off. There's a point where a readers capacity to "feel the characters' pain" is filled, after which it's "he suffers, I get it, move on". You've basically made the reader numb. You don't want that. (This is not meant to imply that readers are unfeeling monsters. You can think of it rather as a defence mechanism.)

So what do you do, to help your readers stay with you, instead of closing off either due to excessive gore or excessive agony? You administer a smaller dose, or you dilute it until it is bearable.

For example, in Alexandre Dumas' La Reine Margot, two characters are taken to be tortured. We follow one character as he is strapped down, the exact way the particular way of torture works is explained, its consequences mentioned, we share the character's fear right before. Only, he's not tortured. The whole thing is faked. The other character is tortured for real, but we're not with him. We only hear the screams, and even then, we don't realise he's not just play-acting, like the first, until after. Then it hits you like a ton of bricks.

In The Princess Bride we are not told exactly what is being done to Westley, only that "he suffered not at all" under months of regular torture, until he is hooked up to "the machine". There is no description of the thing that makes any sense whatsoever, there's nothing for the mind to latch onto, to try and imagine what it's like. The only clue is Westley's reaction: the guy who up until then was busy with wisecracks, "cried like a baby". It's his response that makes you shiver. If the unbreakable guy broke, what he was made to suffer must have been terrible. No description needed.

There are other methods you can use. You can time-skip, to only show the character after they've been tortured. You can have the character faint early on. With torture, less is very often more. It is only so long as you haven't made your reader go numb, that you can deliver a punch.

4

It's easy to vary the level of graphicness. (Is "graphicness" a word? Whatever.) If you write, "George was captured and tortured", and that's the total description, it would take an extremely sensitive person to be disturbed by that. If you give step by step details of how he was skinned alive, how they peeled back the skin, how he screamed in agony and the torturers laughed, describe the look of the raw skin, the blood, etc, that could be very creepy.

I don't think the problem is how to make it more or less disturbing. The problem is deciding what the right level is. For one reader, if you say, "they stabbed him with hot pokers", the reader will cringe and be on the verge of fainting. For others the most detailed and graphic descriptions will leave them saying, "huh, sounds painful I guess".

You have to know your intended audience. If you're writing for children I'd presume you'd be much less graphic than if writing for adults. Women generally have much lower tolerance for gruesomeness then men. Etc.

To at least some extent, you let the story determine the audience rather than vice versa. That is, if you write a story with graphic descriptions of torture, then that will determine who your readers are. People who are more squeamish won't want to read it, people who like that kind of thing will.

It's a lot like sex scenes. For some readers, if you say "Bob and Sally kissed" they get all embarrassed and question if they want to continue reading this salacious story. For others, detailed descriptions of the kinkiest sex acts leave them saying, "Is that all? What dull sex lives these characters have."

My general advice -- and maybe I'm speaking more for myself here than readers in general, I've never seen a study on the subject -- is that being too graphic is more likely to hurt the market for your book than not being graphic enough. If I'm reading a novel and it gets too gruesome, I often quit reading. I'm looking for something entertaining and fun: I don't want to be grossed out. I don't remember ever saying, "That could have been a good book, but there just weren't enough scenes of graphic torture." Hey, people have occasionally asked me if I've seen some movie about Nazi concentration camps or the like, and my response is generally, "No, and I don't plan to see it. I know the Holocaust was terrible. I don't need to be reminded of the gruesome details." But obviously there are people who love to watch gruesome horror movies, so there certainly is a substantial market for such material. I don't want to overstate my case here.

3

One thing you must decide is why is this torture taking place? Is the tormentor some unbalanced person who loves inflicting pain? Is he a seasoned professional who must extract the truth from the victim and then go home to a more or less normal life?

Myself, I chose the second as they can be more devastating than some unhinged person who revels in the suffering of others. I made mine a pure professional - no malice towards his specimens and nothing but fondness for some afterwards - once he knows them heart and soul.

By that time, he has broken their spirit, many bones, shattering who they once were and making them but a shadow of themselves unable to recover. A broken will might recover, broken body can heal, agony fades - but when all are combined there is no recovery and he will grant mercy to those he has come to like.

I have a scene where my MC is captured and taken to a torturer. The person who takes him to this man (her father in-law) only listened to parts of the stories, tuning out the end where he would mention killing those specimens he had come to like.

I focus on my character’s attempt to deal with a situation over which he has no control and the certainty that this is where he will die.

My torturer examines his victim carefully, almost tenderly. It is his belief that the relationship between him and those he questions is intense and intimate. As wetcircuit says, at the end there are no secrets.

I briefly describe the mechanism and gloss over the array of instruments. I mention a few and that this man seems to blend the traditional with the modern.

My MC hopes to die quickly without divulging much, but doubts that will happen as this torturer knows exactly what the human body can survive. My MC knows this man, his reputation and what his brief future holds. He is a fly in the spider’s web with as much chance of escape. Freedom becomes death - after everything has been extracted from him.

I have the torturer rather suave and matter of fact, recognizing in this specimen a person with considerable training who might be a waste to kill.

The purpose of pain is to create fear, fear of greater pain. Eventually, the character will break unless someone intervenes.

Exhaustion will set in and the dance is over - no secrets, no lies and nothing left to hide.

Get inside both the questioned and the questioner. I found my torturer becoming rather chilling as he looked at my character as a piece of flesh to be reduced, not a person at all.

Manipulation can be a large part of it - the contrast between a gentle touch which the victim might well know is from page 50 of the book, and the agony to come can unbalance a person and set the torturer up for success.

Your torturer has all the time in the world, the victim does not and might not know this. Perhaps he thinks he can negotiate his way out - cooperate and be released. The torturer is in control at all times.

Perhaps your character holds on to hope and in his naivety believes this is something that he can both survive and transcend.

Is the torturer trying to confirm information? Is he doing it for fun? If there is a purpose behind it, that can make it more realistic and more chilling.

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To me the most powerful and effective torture scenes were the ones where the author did not describe the torture process, only the aftermath.

One example, that still haunts me years later, is the torture of the Blue Bard in the A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire) book by George R. R. Martin. By describing the Blue Bard after the torture (quoting from memory here) such as "his always blue boots were soaked red with his own blood" and "he raised his remaining eye and spoke as blood bubbled from his broken teeth" he created an extremely powerful sight.

I think the reason why this kind of writing works is because it is mostly up to the individual how much they want to imagine of the process of the torture. People who are less tolerant to such things can quickly read on and not get disheartened. But by showing the painful results you still convey to the reader how much pain the character must have went through.

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