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Torture scenes and how to write them right

a jail cell where a torture scene may be set
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Whether in books, movies, or on TV, scenes of torture are common throughout fictional narratives. And understandably so. They serve to raise the stakes, create tension. If the protagonist is the victim, we see them pushed to the edge of their limits. If they are the perpetrator, we see them driven to extreme methods out of desperation. 

The problem with many of the portrayals of torture scenes is that they lack a basic awareness of what torture truly looks like. As a result, the writer is unable to ask the necessary questions when determining how such scenes should be presented and if they are necessary in the first place. Without this knowledge and a willingness to critically examine what we put into works it is easy to fall into the same traps that we see frequently with issues such as sexual assault: it becomes an easy fallback whenever we want to add drama.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that torture should never be included, but to present information and questions that will allow writers to make responsible, educated decisions by asking several questions.

Why is the torture happening?

This question has two levels: external and internal narrative choices. We’ll go into both narratives in-depth.

External narrative of torture scenes

Externally (outside the narrative), why is the writer choosing to include this scene? Does it add to the overall story? There are absolutely times when torture scenes might demonstrate something essential about a character or move the plot forward in a way that other events might not. But there is also the risk of including torture scenes to be shocking to the reader without adding anything of value. Beyond that, if a character is being tortured, how much do the readers need to see? In some cases, seeing the scars, alluding to the trauma, and letting the reader fill in the rest with their imagination may be more effective. This, of course, is largely influenced by the genre of the work. An Adult Horror novel would have drastically different expectations than a Young Adult Fantasy novel. But either way, always challenge what you are including and the purpose it serves. 

Internal narrative of torture scenes

Internally (within the narrative), why are the characters being tortured? What do the torturers hope to accomplish? At times it is presented as a means of intimidation, allowing such heinous acts to spread fear among the torturer’s opposition. Whether such acts would serve to erode morale or strengthen resolve would be up to the author. Most of the time, however, torture is presented as a means of getting information impossible to attain otherwise. The trouble is, this information is highly unreliable. There is a common notion regarding torture that “everybody talks.” This may be, but there is little accounting for what they say. During the supposed “War on Terror” detainees submitted to “enhanced interrogation tactics” provided inconsistent, unreliable intelligence. At times, they even provided information which led to the attack of their own enemies. 

How does torture work in real life?

There is also the popular trope of the “ticking time bomb” scenario, made famous in narratives such as the tv show 24. It postulates a situation in which an immediate threat necessitates the use of torture to extract information needed to save countless lives. It is a compelling, dramatic device. However, it is also a complete fabrication. No incident like this has ever occurred in the real world. Of course, if you are writing fiction that may not be a problem. But consider how much less effective such desperate strategies would be on such a timetable.

During the Algerian War, resistance fighters had a strategy to capitalize on this. Each member only knew the locations of a few others. Those captured and tortured by the French army knew that within twenty-four hours their arrest would be known to those they worked with and everyone would be moved. So if they were able to hold out a single day they would have no information to give up. The knowledge of an endpoint can be a powerful motivator to keep from talking. 

These questions are among the most basic a writer needs to ask to see whether the inclusion of a torture scene is warranted and whether the results align with actual human behavior. 

Who is doing it?

This is a central question and one which, over the past two decades, has not been asked enough in either our world or our fiction. When we turn on a movie and see one person strapped to a chair while another beats them, it should not take a moment to discern which is being presented as the hero and which the villain. 

At its most basic level, torture is a reflection of the devaluing of life. It is the attempt to remove a person’s agency and treat them as a thing to be used and discarded. People become tools. In a story of good vs. evil, it is not difficult to discern which side these methods belong to.

That is not to say that the protagonist in a story could never be driven to torture. There may well be a compelling reason for them to choose this path. But it is important to realize that having a “good” character do something bad does not make that action good. Do they wrestle with the decision? Do others see them differently after? How about how they see themselves? 

If you take a protagonist this direction don’t gloss over the impact this kind of decision would have for them. And that brings us to the last major questions:

What are the lasting effects?

In a lot of torture literature you will see torture split in two main categories: physical and psychological. Physical torture includes things like beatings or electric shocks. Psychological torture would be things like sleep deprivation or constant, loud sounds. However, something that is important for those writing these scenes to understand is that this delineation is neither useful nor accurate. When it comes down to it, all torture is psychological. Some may use more physical methods, but the desired outcome is to break down the will. As Elaine Scarry notes in her book, The Body in Pain, the torturer’s goal is to present the reality of pain and replace it with the illusion of control. And that trauma will leave scars. Sometimes physical, always psychological. 

If your protagonist was the one being tortured, what does that do to them moving forward? Are they forced to deal with lasting effects? Do they carry shame? Guilt? Anger? 

If they were the ones committing torture, they are still likely to carry scars with them. (For a nonfiction account of this, see None of Us Were Like this Before, by Joshua E.S. Phillips.) Does it change how they see themself or their place in whatever quest or mission they were on? 

In conclusion

These types of questions are just the beginning of what we have to think about when we consider including a depiction of torture in our works. It is a traumatizing act will resonate with any reader who has experienced it (be it at the hands of a soldier, government official, police officer, etc.) or experienced similar violence that sought to remove their agency (such as domestic violence or sexual assault). We owe it, then, to any future readers as well as to the integrity of the stories we seek to tell, to be sure to educate ourselves and question what purpose these scenes serve.

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David Esarey is a writer of fantasy and science fiction who holds a Master’s in International Human Rights. During his studies, he had a particular research interest in genocide and torture and served as the project manager for a globally-focused study on current trends in human trafficking. You can find him on Twitter at @DwarvenWerebear.

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