Hey guys! Today I’m here with another “writing tips” post. I have to say, these are some of my favorite blog posts to write. I hope you enjoy them, too, and that they’re at least somewhat helpful to you.
So I decided to do today’s writing tips on torture scenes. Now, torture scenes are very hard to write. But like everything else about writing, you’ll get better at them with practice.
The Apostle’s Sister contains torture scenes, and those scenes were the hardest for me to write. What is it like to watch a loved one endure torture? What’s it like to just stand there helplessly as you’re convinced they’re being murdered before your eyes? What’s it like to love someone who suffers so much, and suffer with them? What’s it like to listen to them vent all the gory details to you? Can you imagine the horror and trauma? My goodness, it’s easy to come to tears thinking about it.
Before writing the torture scenes in TAS, I had never read any torture scenes in other books, aside from the scourging/crucifixion scenes in The Messiah by Marjorie Holmes. And let me tell you, those scenes were HEAVY EMOTIONAL!!! I was sobbing uncontrollably as I read them. I knew that my torture scenes had to be just as heavy, just as emotional, just as sob-worthy. Holmes set the standard VERY high!
Let me say first that I am absolutely no expert. I have a lot to learn – I mean A LOT! But after writing these torture scenes, I think I can say I have a little experience. I’m going to just share what I’ve learned, and I hope it will help you guys.
So let’s get started.
1. Choose from whose point of view you’ll narrate the scene.
The first thing to consider is simply from whose point of view you’ll be narrating this scene. If your novel is limited to strictly one character’s point of view, this won’t be a question. But if you’re writing a story from multiple points of view, you’ll need to choose which point of view.
Depending on your characters, there are many options. You could tell it from the point of view of:
1. A loved one of the person being tortured (more on this in tip #3).
2. The person being tortured.
3. The person doing the torturing/the person trying to force something from the lips of the one being tortured.
4. This one is a bit creative and it’s rarely used as far as I know, but you could even tell the scene from the perspective of a loved one of the executioner. This could be very powerful. Is it a mother who has tears streaming down her face, wondering where she went wrong to make her son fall this far? Is it a best friend who is cheering his buddy on?
These two questions should help you determine which point of view you should use:
1. Who has the most at stake? Don’t tell the scene from the perspective of the person who has little to do with it and doesn’t care how things turn out. Tell it from the perspective of someone who cares very much about the way this will end and is on the side of either the one being tortured or the executioner. Basically, make sure your narrator is not indifferent and preferably has the most to lose or gain.
2. Who will be the most effective narrator? This is a simple question. Perhaps the person who’s actually enduring the torture has the most at stake, but their mind isn’t clear enough to make for effective narration. If they’re half-dead and in excruciating pain, they probably won’t conceivably be able to think clearly. Flashes might run through their mind of their impending death, the loved one watching, the information they’re trying to hide, etc. But realistically, they won’t be thinking coherently.
2. Don’t bog things down by over-describing the instrument of torture.
One thing I noticed from Marjorie Holmes’ scourging scene in The Messiah is this: She did not bog down the story by over-describing the whip with which the soldiers were torturing Jesus. In fact, now that I think about it, she didn’t describe the whip at all. It’s a whip. We all know whips are vicious. We all know they hurt. We all know how they snap, tear skin, crack ribs, shatter bone, etc. Don’t feel the need to over-describe. It will slow the scene down and reduce the tension you worked so hard to build. (More on this in tip #4).
In The Apostle’s Sister, in one of my torture scenes, Paul is beaten with rods (Acts 16:22). There was no need for me to describe the height, width, and length of the rods. They’re giant, heavy, rods. That’s all we need to know. We know how much it’s going to hurt to be beaten all over with a dozen or more rods. So don’t worry about too much description. It slows us down and keeps us from the meat of the story. (The meat? That’s a weird way to put it… XD.)
3. Have a loved one watch.
Having a loved one watch is HEARTBREAKING. I mean, one of the most heartbreaking things you could do for this scene. Can you imagine the trauma, the terror, the horror, of watching your loved one tortured?
In the scourging/crucifixion scenes of The Messiah, Marjorie Holmes tells parts from different perspectives. One part is from the perspective of “Uncle” Cleophas, a dear family friend who has been a father to Jesus since Joseph’s death. One part is from the perspective of Jesus’ mother, Mary. The other part is from Jesus’ perspective.
While the part from Jesus’ perspective was indeed very moving, the perspectives of Cleophas and Mary made me cry the most. It’s just horrible. Cleophas runs to the soldiers and tries to bribe them with money so they will stop scourging Jesus. Mary stands at the cross, holding back her tears as she watches her son die.
In my novel, it was totally heartwrenching for me to write from Temira’s perspective as she watches her brother tortured in such horrible ways. It’s heartwrenching as she chokes back her tears, determining she will not cry and make things all the more painful for him. It’s heartwrenching as she fights to go to him while others hold her back. It’s heartwrenching when she begs the executioner to stop (more on this in tip #10); heartwrenching as she refuses to leave, resolving to be with him until his dying moment. It’s heartwrenching when Paul’s nephews (especially Seth, who is only seven years old when he witnesses the violence done to his uncle) see their mother’s agony and feel their own. It’s just heartwrenching the whole way! (Goodness, I used that word so many times! But seriously.)
4. Build up to the scene with foreshadowing and tension.
Since I’m bad at explaining, I’ll be using an example from TAS to illustrate this point!
A huge plot point in TAS is the torture scene that occurs in Chapter 3. But I took care to foreshadow that big scene WAY before Chapter 3. In Chapter 1, I was already foreshadowing and building up tension to make that torture scene as impactful and moving as possible.
For events in your novel that will heavily impact the rest of the plot, you usually hear that you should be foreshadowing and building up tension way before the event actually happens. This is good advice to go by. So how exactly do you build up this foreshadowing and tension I speak of?
The Chapter 3 torture scene from TAS is when Paul is scourged to the brink of death against a Jewish synagogue pillar. In Chapter 1, Temira is reflecting on the traumatizing experiences of her childhood. I had her get flashbacks to the countless scourgings she had witnessed from the time she was very small. Countless times she saw people die before even half of the lashes had been administered. Obviously witnessing such gory deaths was very traumatizing for her, which is why she remembers them so far back and so vividly.
It’s important to note the kinds of people Temira saw scourged – criminals. Criminals who had committed horrible deeds like robbery, drunkenness, and even incest. Yet she still pitied them, that they had to endure such torture, despite what they had done. From her flashbacks, we learn some very important things about the Jewish punishment of scourging:
1. Scourgings were intensely shameful as well as excruciatingly painful. Most people did not survive them, and those who did were scarred and crippled the rest of their lives – marked by their shame for everyone to see.
2. Scourging was a punishment reserved for the most disgusting of criminals.
There are more, but those are the two main ones. It’s important to know this information before we actually get to the torture scene in Chapter 3. Then we understand how horrible scourging really was. With our modern lens, it’s sort of hard to imagine that kind of pain. But through the tension built by Temira’s flashbacks, we are given perspective.
We also sense that her flashbacks are foreshadowing to the day she will see her own brother suffer that punishment. It’s obvious the thought never enters her mind that that’s something she will very soon witness done to him. And when she actually does witness it, she’ll think back to the many times she saw scourgings as a little girl and never imagined she would see her brother endure it.
I hoped I explained that well enough. Basically, foreshadowing and tension can be very powerful tools in making your torture scene as powerful as possible.
5. Decide who should do the torturing.
Sometimes this detail is pretty obvious. Such as in The Messiah, when Jesus is scourged and nailed to the cross by Roman soldiers. Or in TAS, when Paul is given a rod-beating by Roman soldiers. That’s what the Bible tells us, so of course Holmes wrote it that way, and of course I wrote it that way, to adhere to the Bible. So sometimes, your decision of who should be the executioner is obvious.
But other times you might not know who should be the executioner. I’m using an example from TAS to explain, again!
From 2 Corinthians 11:24-25, we learn that Paul endured torture seven times not mentioned in the book of Acts! In 11:24, we’re told that the thirty-nine lashes were administered by Jews. In 11:25, it says “beaten with rods” and we know that the Romans used rods while the Jews used whips. So basically, I know that the Jews gave some punishments and the Romans gave some more.
Now I could just say that the Jewish punishments were given by some random Jewish leaders, and the Roman punishments were given by some random Roman officials. And it was true that influential people, Jews and Romans, did punish Paul without personally knowing him, or having any backstory with him. They did give their punishments simply because they were cruel, wanted to please the people, etc. And that illustrates what truly awful people they were, so I did say that for some of the punishments, they did it for no personal reason.
But it can be very powerful to have the executioner be someone familiar to your condemned character. Is it their best friend, who they found out just now is really on the enemy’s side? Is it a long-lost sibling? (Who maybe doesn’t know this is their sibling? That would be interesting.) There are tons of emotional options here!
For my Chapter 3 torture scene, the executioner was Paul’s own uncle. And his family, except Temira, was all on the uncle’s side. That was a really emotional scene to write!
And in another chapter, Paul’s nephew Seth has a run-in with the son of one of the Jewish leaders who helped to torture Paul and try to murder him. Needless to say, Seth and the torturer’s son did not take kindly to one another. And later, Temira has a talk with the Jewish leader himself.
So making the executioner someone familiar can indeed be very powerful!
6. Use the five senses.
Taste, feel, smell, sight, and sound. Use the five senses! Here are some tips to help you:
1. Taste: If you’re doing the scene from the victim’s perspective, maybe they taste blood. Or sweat. Or the gag that’s been stuffed in their mouth.
2. Feel: Again, from the victim’s perspective, maybe they feel the painful ropes holding them to the pillar. Or (this one is really obvious) the scorpion sting of the whip. Or, from the executioner’s perspective, maybe they feel the sickening weight of the whip in their hands. Or maybe the loved one witnessing feels the pain on their own body, even though they’re not the one being tortured (I actually used this one for Temira).
3. Smell: Maybe a character smells blood or sweat. Maybe the victim smells the executioner’s breath, or the smoke of a fire being lit for a sacrifice. Or they smell the mud or dust their face is being rubbed in. There are lots of options.
4. Sight: There are lots of vivid options for sight. In one of my TAS scenes, Temira sees the Roman soldiers drink wine to refresh themselves after they’ve beaten Paul. She thinks how the color of the wine looks exactly like the color of the blood, and starts to imagine the soldiers are actually drinking her brother’s blood. (That example is definitely vivid!)
5. Sound: The crack of bone. The tearing of flesh. The screams of the victim. The cheers of the mob. Again, there are so many options!
Remember to use all five senses. This will make your scene definitely stand out in the reader’s mind.
7. Make it humiliating.
Don’t just make it painful. Make it humiliating. I kind of touched on this in tip #4 when I mentioned how scourging was intensely shameful because it was reserved for the most disgusting criminals. Everyone knew if you were scourged, you had committed a horrible crime, maybe even incest.
Another example is how during public torture, your clothes were ripped off to completely expose your skin to the punishment. If that’s not humiliating, I don’t know what is. Don’t be tempted to make this scene as soft as you possibly can. It’s torture. There’s nothing soft about a torture scene.
I loved how in The Messiah, Holmes describes the crucifixion in all its harrowing, humiliating detail, leaving out nothing. It made me sob, but it also filled me with amazement that Jesus actually submitted to that kind of shame for me.
Making your scene humiliating only heightens the ultimate triumph in the end. The humiliation of the crucifixion scenes made Jesus’ resurrection scenes all the more victorious!
8. Don’t forget about other spectators.
Don’t forget about other spectators! Chances are, it’s not just the executioner(s), the victim, and a few close companions of each. There will be other spectators who were maybe just passing by and saw the public flogging, or who are cheering for the executioner, or who are rioting, whatever.
Again, in The Messiah, I loved how Holmes described the crucifixion’s many spectators so vividly. She talked about the people who were mocking Jesus to come down from the cross. She talked about those who cried because Jesus had healed their blind daughter, gave them hope through his sermons, etc. She even mentioned those who were passing by and just stopped for a moment to take a curious look at the criminals.
For one of my scenes from TAS, when Paul is tortured in front of the Temple at the hands of the men of Jerusalem, I described how the wives and children of the executioners were standing to the side just weeping. They knew the victim likely deserved what was happening. Not everyone knew Paul personally or had seen him before, but some had. Some didn’t notice Temira at all, while others learned that she was the sister of the victim. But all around, they were terrified. They had never seen violence like what their husbands and fathers were doing.
It’s important to remember the surroundings, especially other spectators. Each detail is significant!
9. Include a vulnerable moment from the enemy.
Vulnerable moments from the enemy! This is one of my favorite tips. I love when this shows up in torture scenes. It’s so incredibly powerful, and maybe even the factor that makes me cry the most.
In The Messiah, after Jesus is taken down dead from the cross, the Roman soldiers allow Mary a moment with him and lay him across her lap. It’s IMPOSSIBLE not to cry at this moment! Why were the soldiers willing to do this for Mary? Were they feeling a little guilty? Did they just figure it was the least they could do after crucifying her son? Were they remembering their own mothers?
In TAS, after the Roman soldiers are finished scourging Paul, they notice for the first time that his sister is in the crowd and saw the entire thing. They all turn away, except for one soldier, who, when he realizes this woman is the sister of the man he just murdered, takes compassion on her. He gives Temira her brother’s bloody garments, knowing that they are the last part of him she will ever hold.
Now why did the soldier pay Temira this act of kindness? Maybe he had a sister of his own at home, and was imagining how she would feel if she saw him in the same position as Temira saw Paul. Maybe he just had a one-time moment of softness, during which he felt sorry for what Temira just had to watch. Maybe he figured he and his companions had been cruel enough. Maybe he had witnessed one of Paul’s miracles or something and known Paul wasn’t just a common criminal. Who knows?
In conclusion, including a vulnerable moment from your executioner(s) is VERY moving!
10. Should your character deny something they believe in to avoid the pain?
This one is intense, and places your victim in a very tense position. Should they deny something they believe in to avoid the pain?
For example, in the Chapter 3 scene from TAS, Paul’s uncle tries to force him to blaspheme through torture. He promises that if Paul just admits Jesus is a dead imposter, he’ll drop the whip and make the pain stop. What’s more, Temira is being forced to watch, and upon hearing this she throws herself at the pillar and begs Paul through sobs to just repeat what their uncle wants, so he won’t be tortured any more. This is making it SUPER hard for Paul to stand for his faith. Just a few words and the pain will stop. If he doesn’t say it, he will continue to be lashed, and Temira will continue to be forced to watch. As if things weren’t hard enough, his sister’s anguished pleading makes it even harder!
For your story, it might be something similar. Like maybe your character has to repeat a few simple words to avoid the pain, or maybe they have to bow before their enemy, or maybe they have to spit out the information they’re trying to keep from their enemy. Will they choose to deny what they believe in to make the torture stop, or will they stay strong and endure the pain?
This creates A LOT of tension and emotion in the scene!
11. Don’t forget the aftermath.
People don’t just walk away from torture and forget all about it. It leaves them mentally as well as physically damaged. Don’t forget that your character will be traumatized, whether they’re the victim, the executioner, or the loved one, or whatever. Even if they were just a casual spectator, something as horrible as a torture scene will stay in your mind and never go away.
Definitely one of the hardest parts for me in writing TAS is portraying Paul’s trauma after he’s been tortured. And Temira’s trauma, too, and the trauma of his nephews. It’s definitely very heavy emotional. One word: HEARTWRENCHING.
You can portray this trauma in many different ways. Some of the things I used were:
1. Silence. Trauma can make someone lose their will even to talk. They can also lose their appetite and prefer to disappear for hours alone, or try to sleep away the pain.
2. Flashbacks. People keep reliving traumatizing events, imagining them over and over in their minds. They can also have an inability to sleep and nightmares.
3. Mental disorder. Trauma often causes mental illness. It’s certainly not uncommon. Traumatizing events are a very common cause of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, delirium, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD. There’s nothing lovely about an experience as traumatizing as torture. Mental illness was widely misunderstood in Paul’s day, so no one really knew what to call it, but he certainly suffered from all of the above. (His mental trauma was also caused by his days persecuting the church when he administered the same torture he now received.) And Temira obviously endured pain just as horrifying. You can’t have a torture scene and then pretend it never happened. Your characters will never forget it. There will be a mess afterwards.
But this only adds to the triumph at the end, which I will close with:
12. Light at the end of the tunnel.
Torture is a horrible thing. There’s no circumventing that. But as Christian writers, we also believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that for those who love God all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). It’s not cliché. Paul endured torture countless times, but these are some of the things he said:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
(This one comes with a picture, so I’m inserting that!)
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
That’s all, folks!
Hope you enjoyed today’s writing tips and that they were helpful to you!
So, have you written or read any torture scenes? Do you have any tips I didn’t mention? How’s everyone’s writing going in general? (Remember I’m always here for encouragement!)
You know the drill – eat, pray, write, repeat!