Fresh baked bread… Kare tried to curl up against the pain in his stomach but couldn’t move his arms and legs.
“Say it.” Beck’s voice grated. He pulled Kare’s head up, so he could see the bread as it was crumbled, smell its scent. He shook his head and Beck took the bread away. Kare drifted away, only half aware of where he was…
His head was yanked back, another smell. Meat juices dripped onto his lips, clenching his stomach.
“Say it.” Beck drizzled more and this time they were salty, mixed with tears.
He needed it.“Master.”
The chicken vanished. He needed it. Gods, he needed it.
The chains opened and his hands fell before him and he looked at them, not knowing what to do. A hunk of bread and a bowl were set on the floor, and he remembered. He broke the hard bread, used the gruel to soften it, and ate, scooping the dregs, spilling them from his hands, they were shaking so much. He licked the bowl, needing what it had, and when Beck laughed, he didn’t care.
He needed it.
The bowl was taken away and Beck leaned close. “Who am I?”
There was no option, nowhere to go but that moment, that need. “My master,” he whispered.
The chains went back on his wrists, pulling him against the wall. He shivered at the cold. The hood was put on; he fought against it, but it was pulled down and there was only darkness. There was always only darkness and the knowledge that he would come again, and that everywhere hurt.
One thing which gets fed back to me, time and again, is that I write good torture scenes. It will go in my writing obituary.
Good, as in memorable. Good, as in making the reader feel close to the horror. Not good in the sense of any enjoyment from the scene for me, the reader, or the character. I thought I'd muse on what makes it effective. What moves it beyond the gross, to something that drags the reader in, even if they'd prefer not to be?
This is what works for me. Not just for torture scenes - often a crude tool - but for the darker scenes that stay with us. It might not be what works for others:
Gratuitous does not work. Readers see through horror used as a cheap hook incredibly quickly. They see it for what it is - a scene placed not to have true impact, but to get people talking. And, yes, the reader might remember the scene - but it won't be what makes the book get under their skin and stay with them.
Torture is about the psychological, more than the physical. Sure, the physical ordeal brings the fear, but the fear is what preys on a person's mind. To really, truly, convey something as horrific and inhumane as torture, it needs to go beyond the physical. It's easy to show pain - but to show impact is harder, and to do that, it's about the inside of a person's head. To that end...
Stay close. Your character is in pain. This is no time for distance. No filter words. It doesn't feel like pain, it's hot tearing muscles, its coiled cramps. It's not looking and listening to what's happening, it's being. If there is any scene that needs the culling of filter words, it's a torture one.
And that's because a torture victim isn't clear thinking. They're not telling you what's going on and why. This is not the scene for info-dumping. This scene is close, it's scared, it's the reptilian brain, not the rational. Be true to the character and it becomes much more effective.
Lastly, for me scenes like this only work if I understand the character and what makes them tick. For Kare, in Abendau, it's reliving his childhood, it's about being powerless, it's about not being strong enough despite a lifetime of preparing it. In Inish Carraig, with John, it's about his life and his need to govern it, its about freedom and that being removed from him. It's about never giving in, no matter how scared. It's about being a big person in a powerless world.
So, if I am good at torture, that's my secret. Loving my characters. Liking them enough to curl up when they're hurt. Knowing them well enough to know their fears. And then showing it, unveiled, up close, with no distance. Perhaps the skill needed is Empathy. I think, for me, it is.
Jo Zebedee writes sci fi, sometimes in her Space Opera world of Abendau, sometimes on the streets of Belfast.
Her first novel, Abendau's Heir (book one of The Inheritance Trilogy) was released in March this year, her second Inish Carraig has just been released.