I have a situation where a character is locked in a cell for about two week’s time. This is a medieval setting. For plot reasons, the character is chained to a block in the middle of the cell. The problem is, I have no idea how he would pee and such. I find it really awkward to think about, and I don’t think it’s relevant to the narrative to explain it, but I’m sure the question will come to reader’s minds, and it does slightly bother me that I don’t know the answer. Usually grazing over details is lazy, but I really don’t want to confront this one. Do I have to come up with a solution, or will readers generally not care?

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    It's more relevant if the character isn't from the period, but the logistics of it won't be such a big deal for folks of the period. Either it's a bedpan (to keep the cell clean) or it's the floor (if filthy is part of the punishment. A dirt floor will soak up urine eventually, and smell bad to boot. Only that's as much a punishment for the guards as for the prisoner...
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 3:25
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    I'd say it depends a bit on the tone of the story... if it's a bit comedic or frivolous or just not too serious, I would say it's fine to leave it out, but if it's supposed to be somewhat realistic or dark or serious, then it may be something to think about, even if you don't describe it directly, maybe "allow" for it, i.e. don't make it impossible. People who don't care will move on, and people who do wonder will be free to use their imaginations. Maybe the character will embrace the fresh air when they do get free.
    – komodosp
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 17:39
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    Historically they lay in their own filth, it was part of the punishment. But you could add a strategically placed hole in the floor - it would have to be over a sewer or in the exterior wall - and involve the incoming vermin in your plot.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 11:58
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    Generally, you don't have to find a reason to leave out a detail. It goes the other way around - is there a good story reason to include it? If the only reason to do so is verisimilitude, it's almost always best to leave it out and focus on the details that keep the story's momentum.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 0:07
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    If your character is locked in a medieval cell for a fortnight, you can be sure the gaolers wouldn't care. For them, the only problem might have been the smell but famously lacking any facilities at all, most medieval villages smelt as you imagine that cell would - only the villagers didn't notice; they'd gone "nose-blind…" Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 19:08

6 Answers 6


Generally, most readers won't care... and the ones who do are weird. "Going to the Bathroom" is only brought up for low brow humor or plot points (such as a detail of an escape). You can even draw attention to your omission by having a casual question tossed to the character ("Wait... how did you go to the bathroom?" met with "I'd rather not dwell on that.") OR you could have the character ask this upon arrival in the cell, only for the guard to say nothing and give a look that the guard is being silent to be cruel, but also trying to hide his giddy humor in keeping that knowledge to himself.

Either way, the options both address the issue and don't, and will let your readers come up with their own ideas. Sometimes the best horror is not knowing.

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    this gimmick is obnoxious enough that i would stop reading if i encountered it Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 18:48
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    @ChristianChapman It's an age old technique: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging. That page lists a use of it by Shakespeare. It's a gimmick that's going to leap out at you when you see it from now on, which you will, frequently, including in stuff where you didn't previously notice it.
    – James_pic
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 15:40
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    If it's in a medieval context, then "How did you go to the bathroom?" would not have been said. I will leave it as an exercise to the student to ponder on why you would not have said "go to the bathroom" in such a milieu. Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 16:31
  • @PrimeMover9 I realized that but I couldn't come up with any terms to use while writing.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 16:42
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    @James_pic: Really, you do need to warn her about clicking that link.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 16:43

This stinks!

This is a slightly obscure question, and might be better answered someplace like the History SE or worldbuilding.

It's more relevant if the character isn't from the period (like a time traveler), but the logistics of it won't be such a big deal for folks of the period. No one has felt the need to answer this question in books I've read unless waste disposal was somehow relevant to the story or plot. If you WANT to be dramatic or add color, the classical thing to say is that the person sat in their own filth. It's worse if the chains don't allow someone to take down their own pants.

In case it IS relevant to the plot, and assuming minimal sanitation, it will be either a bedpan (to keep the cell clean) or it's the floor (if filthy is part of the punishment). Solid waste is problematic, but a dirt floor will soak up urine eventually, and smell bad to boot (manacles were useful because prison cells were poorly constructed and vulnerable to digging and escape attempts). Only the smell would be as much a punishment for the guards as for the prisoner. But remember that this is a time when people emptied their waste into the streets where people walked.

Generally, the hygiene level is not high for the period (varying from region to region), and especially for prisoners. Lots of prisoners died of the horrible conditions in jails, one of the reasons physical punishments like beatings or executions were common (and housing prisoners is expensive).

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    While knowing how pee works in prison is useful and good info, this doesn't answer the questions "Can I leave out details I don’t understand?" "Do I have to come up with a solution, or will readers generally not care?" Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 16:25
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    @MooingDuck I felt the second paragraph answered the question of relevance, that it didn't matter to readers unless the person was a time traveler or that waste was central to the plot (like part of an escape attempt or to emphasize the filthiness of conditions). the rest was just details to give in case those details touched on the plot, which wasn't really fleshed out.
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 16:41
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    As a regular on History, another possibility that comes to mind is just roughly dousing the prisoner (and their floor) with a bucket of water every now and then. I'm not going to bother looking it up right now (because that's irrelevant to this or any other currently asked question), but I could certainly think of multiple possible schemes for dealing with this (or not dealing with it), and likely so could contemporaries.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 17:59
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    @T.E.D. This might mean that if it's complicated, we should avoid it so as to not raise the question awkwardly. I think the OP can answer this issue if they want, but is reasonably safe ignoring it. And I agree that if they need a 'hard' answer on the hows, history might be the best place (it was my opening suggestion). Only history is a little judgmental if you haven't researched the topic extensively first.
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 18:21
  • Agree with everything said there, yes.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 18:44

It depends on whether leaving out details would constitute a plot hole

There is no problem in leaving out details - if those details are not very relevant. Many authors tend to omit "dirty" details related to bodily functions, and if your book, in general, is not very descriptive and realistic, this would be fine to omit those specifics too.

However, sometimes those details can be of higher importance, and at some point, any attentive reader can't help it but ask "how?".

For example, how would Edward Scissorhands go to the bathroom?

If there is an obvious solution to the problem, for example, the one which @DWKraus' answer suggests, it would be totally fine for you to omit details and leave it all to the reader's imagination. But if not, your entire book should not be based on realism, otherwise, you are creating a plot hole.

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    I don't know about historical fiction, but sci-fi fans can get really obsessed. So, yeah, know your audience, and know your genre. Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 17:10
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    @JörgWMittag I thought you were linking to the entire Sci Fi Stack Exchange ... Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 19:57

You have to come up with a solution.

Whether you share that solution with the reader depends upon the genre, audience, and historical accuracy; whether the solution is an opportunity to show the personalty and motives of your characters; and whether who is telling the tale of the imprisonment would share these details.

I do not think much detail is needed, "imprisoned for two weeks" already tells us that this a political prisoner. Water, food, cleaning of defecation, the care of festering injuries, is either all dealt with by the imprisoner (or the family of the prisoner who bribe the imprisoner) or are all ignored by the imprisoner. The prisoner is either kept in luxury til ransomed, or is to be killed by omission through starving and infected injuries.


In classic stories, like the tale of Prometheus (which I assume is the blueprint for this), this question is left out because it is unnecessary - you also wouldn't explain how the character took a breath or grew hair (unless it's a wizard beard)

The classic story also had an awkward part where a bird eats Prometheus's liver each day, and no one cared if this was awkward. The only reason modern humans don't want to think about "awkward" stuff (your wording) like this is that we somehow tell ourselves that we are above these filthy natural things - but this could be a real story boost!

Think about it - is your character a nobleman who never actually had to cook for himself? Maybe this is the chance for character growth in general. Like "I had to sit in my own filth for 2 whole days before somebody came and cleaned after me, I came to realize all of humankind was always sitting in their own filth, no one is better than anybody."


I feel this is obligatory: https://youtu.be/rEMjRmKViZo

Depending on the tone of the story, there are no limits to what you can get away with.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! Link-only answers are discouraged here, as links can die out over time; if anything ever happens to that linked YouTube video, your answer will become useless. Would you be able to edit your answer to summarise its contents?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 18:30

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