How to Write a Torture Scene

I’m a Christian who believes Philippians 4:8, which reads: “Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJV)

I am also a novelist who believes in making my scenes as authentic and realistic as possible. I believe that in order to portray evil people, you have to show them doing evil things. So there’s the rub.

I have fellow Christian writers, who won’t write what they consider violence, sex scenes or profanity, because of Philippians 4:8. And I agree with them, to a degree. What I write as action, some consider unnecessary violence. In the end, every Christian writer needs to decide for him or herself where the line is. As far as profanity goes, the Bible only talks about using the Lord’s name in vain; it doesn’t talk about the F word or other words that are banned by network TV. But that doesn’t mean I will use them. They are not a positive reflection on my message, and I think, for the most part, they are gratuitous and unnecessary.

But this blog entry is specifically about violence, and even more specifically, about torture scenes. These kinds of scenes, in the eyes of an author who writes Christian suspense, are necessary in two situations: when you are trying to demonstrate how evil a villain really is, and when you are showing a Christian being faithful regardless of circumstances that he is put in.

I bring this up because Salome’s Charger, the book I am currently working on, has what I consider a necessary torture scene in it. Let me share with you just a clip to let you see how I handled it. The hero, Ezra Huddleston, is strapped to a chair, and is approached by the villain, Alain Brassard, who intends to use lye to find out what Ezra knows:

Liar, Ezra thought. “Okay, okay. I’ll tell you,” he agreed hastily. “Look, you don’t have to do this.”

Brassard smiled at Ezra, then tipped his head toward the basin.

“I know,” he said. “But I quite enjoy it.”

He poured a little of the liquid on the back of Ezra’s hand. Ezra watched as white smoke rose from his hand, accompanied by the smell of burning flesh, and an overwhelming sense of being on fire.

Ten minutes later, Brassard leaned back to stretch, and then stood up.

I don’t spend time showing Ezra in agony, or Brassard gleefully pouring lye over Ezra’s hand, but I don’t have to. You get the idea of what happened.

C.S. Lewis handled it this way: In the Perelandra series, the hero Ransom comes across frog-like creatures that were wounded in horrible ways. They would inevitably die, but not until after enduring incredible pain. Later he comes across a Satan-like figure, who was gleefully torturing these creature by stabbing them with his fingernail. This scene helps characterize the villain, and gives you a fairly strong illustration of the evil Ransom was facing. And in my mind it was necessary.

The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was famous for showing less in his suspense movies and getting a stronger reaction. According to Francois Truffaut, “the famous shower scene in Psycho uses montage to hide the violence.  You never see the knife hitting Janet Leigh.  The impression of violence is done with quick editing, and the killing takes place inside the viewer’s head rather than the screen.”

With this in mind, it’s not necessary to be gratuitous in demonstrating violence, sex or profanity. In fact, it’s better not to. The average reader and filmgoer has been inundated with plenty of these three areas, so much so that restraint in a strategic way could actually set your project aside in a positive way.

What’s important in portraying evil, such as a torture scene in an imaginative, yet strategic and non-gratuitious manner. And that takes skill.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.