Regular Contributor Rayne Hall has covered a wide range of topics for RU. Today, she discusses the elements of writing a captivity scene in three different points of view.
Many novels feature at least one scene in which a character is locked up against her will. Perhaps she’s been arrested, abducted or thrown into a dungeon, or maybe she’s visiting a loved one in prison.
Here are some techniques to make this scene powerful.
FROM THE CAPTIVE’S POINT OF VIEW
If the reader experiences the scene from the perspective of the prisoner, consider the following suggestions.
- Describe the sound as the cell door closes. Does it clank, screech or thud shut? Let the reader hear the related noises as well, such as rattling of keys in the lock and the thudding of boots as the jailer walks away.
- If possible, make the room dark or semi-dark. This is creepier and can be unnerving for the reader as well as the character. Show how scarce the light is – the narrow rectangle of light falling through the high up window slit, the flickering torch.
- During the character’s first moments in the cell, describe what what the place smells like. Olfactory impressions are strongest at the beginning. After a while, the mind gets used to them and they are no longer noticeable, so mention the stinks when the character does, which is the moment she enters that room.
Here are some ideas for unpleasant smells:
Sour stench of urine
Excrement from previous prisoners
- Solitary confinement is scariest. If your character is alone in that room, with nobody to talk to, the reader worries for her. She may shout “Is anyone out there? Can you hear me?” and get no reply. Alternatively, she may have a companion in her captivity – until that person gets led away for execution. If several people are confined in a close space – cell mates, or Jews transported in railway carriages to a death camp – describe body odours, movements, overheard snatches of conversation, snores, habits.
- The place is probably cold, and you may want to make it very chilly indeed. This is plausible even in warm climates, because cells tend to be underground or behind thick stone walls. The place is unheated, the protagonist is not wearing many clothes, the air is chilly, the concrete floor is cold, and if a blanket is provided at all it is much too thin.
- Use sounds. Sounds create unease and fear in the reader’s subconscious – perfect for this type of scene. Here are some ideas:
Fellow captive’s sobs and snores
Agonised screams from another cell
Clanking doors, rattling keys, screeching lock
Guard’s boots thudding in the corridor
Innocuous noises coming from outside
- Mention how something feels to the touch. This works especially well if the place is dark.
The fetters/handcuffs/bonds chafing at the wrists/ankles
Pain from bruises
The texture of the wall
Texture of the door
Cold hard floor
- Perhaps you can involve the sense of taste as well. What does the food taste like? The water? However, this may not be appropriate for all captivity scenes. The perception of taste also depends on how hungry and thirsty the prisoner is. At first, he may find the gruel and brackish water revolting, but after a while, he’s so starved, he’ll devour and swallow what he can get.
If the villain has gagged him, you can also describe how the gag tastes.
- The captive examines the place, looking for ways to escape. This is a natural response to captivity, especially during the first few hours. It’s also a good way to show the reader how secure the prison is. Describe how strong the wall is, how high up and narrow the windows are placed, how several locks secure the door, with two jailers standing guard.
- The pace in captivity scenes is slow, because the character is condemned to inactivity. Use this part of your novel to share the character’s thoughts with the reader. He may reflect on his mistakes, gain insights and grow wiser. But don’t allow the character to wallow in despair. Although she may feel dejected, she doesn’t give up.
- All the captive has is a sliver of hope that he might escape. This hope keeps the tension alive. Let him hope and plan. Later, the plan will probably fail, but it’s important to show some hope in order to create suspense.
FROM THE VISITOR’S POINT OF VIEW
If the character is visiting the captive in prison, or rescuing her from her confinement, his immediate attention won’t be on the place, but on her person. Does she look pale or healthy? Emaciated or strong? Does her voice sound feeble, dejected or defiant?
He will take in the surroundings, but not in great depth, because unlike the prisoner, the visitor doesn’t have the time.
He will notice the smells the moment he enters the cell. Other senses will come into play as well, but only briefly.
FROM THE JAILER’S POINT OF VIEW
A kidnapper, prison guard or torturer will also observe the captive more than the place.
The place is familiar to him, so he no longer pays much attention. He’s unlikely to notice the accustomed smells and noises.
However, he’ll observe the prisoner, and his interest is similar to that of a visitor: how healthy, strong, emaciated, pale is she? His interest is probably not compassionate, but related to his intentions. A kidnapper needs his victim in good health, while a torturer assesses her capability to suffer and stay alive.
He’ll closely listen to the sound of her voice, to detect any note of dejection, despair, rebellion or defiance.
In addition, he’ll double-check the security features – the manacles on her wrists, bars on the windows, the door locks.
If you’re planning or revising a captivity scene for your novel and have questions, leave a comment, and I’ll probably reply. I love answering questions.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on the south coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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