Monday, 9 July 2012

When Torture Goes Too Far

All crime fiction fans like myself have read at least one or two torture scenes in the last few years. But where does torture stop being an entertaining plot device and where does it descend into brutal gratuitous savagery?

As an author I am curious about how far is too far and where to draw the line. Admittedly as a reader I am quite inured to violence and torture scenes have to be really graphic to shock me although I do understand that there are many other readers with much more delicate sensibilities.

In the last year’s reading I can recall such horrors as a soldering iron inserted into a urethra, countless waterboarding incidents and rats being forced to escape fire by eating their way through someone’s stomach. However the scene which I will always remember as the one which was hardest to read was in a book I read many years ago by Wilbur Smith. It was Eagle in the Sky which was basically a love story and yet when the hero crashed his plane and was on fire the account given by Smith was so graphic and detailed it made me flinch anew with every passing word. I couldn’t stop reading though such was the power of the scene.

The aforementioned soldering iron was only mentioned as if an afterthought whereas the flesh eating rats were described in great detail as they burrowed their way to safety though the victim. Which way is right and which is wrong? Both made me flinch and left enough of an impression for me to recall them with ease.

I have used torture scenes in my own writing (including one scene involving pepper and sellotape) although I shied away from being too graphic with the detail. Another story I have written features a piece of torture which is mainly psychological although there is a physical element to it.

As an author I have always felt that torture cannot be too graphic unless there is a need to shock and revile the reader. Violence can be a bloodthirsty as you like because it tends to be spur of the moment whereas torture is generally premeditated. The fact that someone has planned to torture the hero / heroine / victim #whatever and has brought along their instruments of pain always seems more evil to me and is behind my reasoning to go with the less is more theory when describing torture scenes.

What do you do? And what are your tastes as a reader? Feel free to comment below.


  1. Hmm, where do you stop... As an Historical writer, My forthcoming Ebook does contain a very graphic scene of torture; the description of which was wholly gleaned from trial records of the time. I kept it in because it happened that way, the intention was to show my protagonists for what they were.

  2. Scenes of graphic torture -- or the resultant damage the torture -- are horrific, true, but, if such scenes are done with the clear purpose to characterize the torturers as the monsters they are, then how could one object to those scenes?
    In the course of reading Tom Wolfe's, "The Right Stuff," the reader is immersed in the aftermath of a fighter jet crash that resulted in the pilot being "burned beyond recognition." In his description Wolfe does not soften any aspect of what that term means. He gives you the scene, the feel and smell of that crash exactly as it must have been. It was so graphic, I could not look at barbequed pork for a couple of months. In fact even the smell of a BBQ place had me choking back vomit. But the information was necessary to show what the test pilot heroes of the novel could become that ghastly scene every time they climbed into a fighter or a space capsule (even a ground test proved deadly to three of those men when their capsule burst into a holocaust of flame and the three were burned beyond recognition). It made you aware that the pilots already knew what that term meant and they still climbed into teir jets and rockets. It defined courage and heroism.
    So, again, yeah, if necessary to the plot or arc of the story or characterization of the torturers, then the writer is obligated to take the risk of pissing some readers off. Such readers will then bay at the moon abd editors about their injured psyches. Self-appointed moralists and censors never die they just, unfortunately, reproduce.
    Ever thus, there is a movement to take Twain's masterpiece "Huckleberry Finn" off library shelves again because of an "objectionable" word (nigger) used to describe a character in that novel. Obviously none of the book-burners have read the book or they would know that Jim, the runaway slave, is the hero of the novel and the most moral of all the characters in that classic book.

  3. I feel detached (and grateful for it) when I read scenes of violence and torture, but certainly the best ones give me an 'Oh Jesus!'reaction because the description leaves a lot to my own imagination. Graphic detail can spoil the effect, and if done cheaply it becomes comical. Mo Hyder seems to be able to pull off pretty heavy scenes without going over the top in detail, but maybe like you I am not easily shocked.
    In a story I wrote recently, I had my MC nail some creep to a church door in a crucifix position with a nail gun. However, I was careful to make sure the victim was unconscious and killed before he woke up since the MC was attempting to leave a warning to others rather than torture his victim.
    Actually, I found some of the scenes in Heller's classic Catch-22 pretty high on the shock scale and yet he makes no attempt at graphic detail.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys

    @Ronnie - Historical is one of the sub genres where torture can easily be used as it is an established truth that torture was used frequently in days gone by.

    @Aj - As good an argument as one would expect from your lips. There would appear to be parallels between Wolfe's piece and that of Smith's mentioned in my post. Nearly twenty years have past since I read that scene and it sticks with me as strong today as it did when I first read it. And as for book burners? Well they are exactly the kind of ill informed idiots who need to read more.

    @Keith - That would seem to be the key. Prompting the readers imagination and sending it off to run riot. Mo Hayder is excellent at depicting torture and I'm a massive fan of hers. As a wee aside I've noticed that female authors are often far more inventive than their male counterparts when it comes to torture methods. Must be that whole childbirth thing that they reckon toughens them up.

  5. In my experience (as someone only recently come to read graphic scenes of torture etc.) it is the suggestibility of what is written to the reader's mind that does the 'shocking' damage. A single sentence, striking from nowhere, can do it - two of the worst for me were the scene in Lord of the Flies of the pilot's body and in a historical novel mentioning the way Edward II was kiled (hot poker in anus). But to complain of them - ridiculous, since most books advertise their likely content.

  6. AJ- Wolfe was trying to explain the true risk of being an astronaut, when we generally thought of them as guys who got to wear space helmets, fly in rockets and drink Tang, which is a a purpose.
    "This dude is messed uuuup!" is rather less of a purpose.
    Now, I've written some very graphic scenes of violence, but through trial and error, I have learned that it takes one good line or description to jar the reader, if that is the intention.
    Going on and on, to me, is showing off. The reader's imagination is the best writer in the world.
    I'm not offended or revolted when a writer goes the long route, but I find it tedious. Lately I've shifted to emotional damage, because the news is full of bloody violence, like the guy who got his face gnawed off.
    As for the rats... I read that and forgot it. Or I saw it on Game of Thrones, perhaps. Either way, it was forgettable. But I still remember Winston Smith in 1984, with the rat cage strapped to his face, terrified. I'm not even sure if Orwell had the critter sniff Winston's nose, with its ticklish little whiskers, but I shiver just the same... and I have no fear of rats. I've kept them as pets.
    I also have a urethra, and maybe it's because a friend (a woman) recommended a Tabasco-coated pipe cleaner brush up the urethra for serial gropers, but the soldering iron didn't get to me.
    Just like the yearning is sometimes better than the receiving, the anticipation of torture and pain is often more effective than the hot poker up the ying yang.

  7. Great post Graham, I think your analysis is spot on. Newspapers report things the ‘sensitive’ readers are so offended by on a daily basis while they yawn into their tedious jobs. AJ has it succinctly, the nature of the description is a fine line between fiction and fact. As the best writers know, there is no line at all. Kidd’s Revenger’s Tragedy shows more decapitated corpses than most dramas. Oh is that two ll's in killed? Maybe we seek to mitigate murder, but surely we need to examine martial law. There are no heroes.

  8. I have no wish to confuse the reader so, may I first clarify that this is Graham 'the pipe' Smith, whe enjoys writing but is NOT Graham Smith, Writer.

    I have been a lover of Tabasco sauce since a tender age. I have also - as my name and profile 'suggest' - been a pipe smoker for 55 years. My idea of 'torture'? Inadverantly using a pipe cleaner, covered in Tabasco, which has been up a urethra, to 'clear MY pipe'! Happy 'Condor Moments' to ALL! GTP