Skip to main content

You know, you write really good torture....

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.


Popular posts from this blog

A NATURAL HISTORY OF GOBLINS - a guest blog by Teresa Edgerton

Some fantasy writers like to write about elves, others prefer werewolves, vampires, or zombies. I have a penchant for goblins.

In folklore, the word "goblin" has been applied in myriad ways. A goblin might be a mischievous sprite like Puck, a hideous, vengeful ghost, or even a beneficient house spirit such as a brownie. Sometimes it was used as a synonym for fairy, sometimes applied to a separate race: small, ugly, and malicious. I've taken advantage of this ambiguity, and in each series of books I've written where goblins appear, I've reinvented them.

In the second Celydonn series (sequels to The Green Lion Trilogy) they are fuathan, bad fairies if you will. I like writing about fairies. Even the best of them are not nice; they are not benevolent. On occasion they may be extravagently generous. Grateful for small favors, they return them with magnificent gifts and spectacular rewards. But you cannot trust them. Their morality is not our morality, their laws…

Getting hearts racing, an interview with fantasy-romance novelist Suzanne Jackson

Today I'm chatting with Suzanne Jackson, whose debut novel has been picked up by Venus Ascending, a new fantasy/sci-fi romance imprint headed up by Teresa Edgerton. I'm lucky enough to be a critique partner of Sue's, and can confirm that this book is something special with a great, unique world, sumptuous writing, a fantastic female lead, and the so-bad-he's-irresistible Nicholas Jarrett.
So I thought I'd be the first to nab the elusive Suzanne and find out what makes her - and her world - tick.


Firstly, tell us a little about your world, and how you've managed to marry fantasy with romance?

Hi, Jo. Thank you for inviting me onto your blog for my very first interview. I’m thrilled to be able to talk a little bit about my book and characters.
The Beguiler is set in a fantasy world similar in many ways to Georgian England. Many people are superstitious, with goo…


This week a theme has emerged over my conversations and interactions, almost organically. That theme is about communities and how they can give a voice and strength to the individuals within it. I’m a member of a range of writing communities. Some, such as Women Aloud and the SFFchronicles, I’m pretty central to. Some, less so:
Despite having a reputation for writing some dark scenes, my work isn’t dark enough to be classed as grimdark*. And I don’t read a whole heap of Grimdark books (the odd one slips through my eclectic book-selection part of my brain, but so does the odd macho-man romance.) But I like the Grimdark community grimdark fiction readers & writers – they’re funny and warm (I know, I know, they really need to up their grim credentials) and very welcoming. And moderated as tightly as a group needs to be. So, I hang around and post the odd comment and chat with the odd member – not that they’re all odd, of course – and that’s as far as it needs to go. The group have …