Posted On April 7, 2017 by Print This Post

Writing Captivity Scenes – by Rayne Hall

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.


If the reader experiences the scene from the perspective of the prisoner, consider the following suggestions.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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

Old sweat


Rodent excrement

Rotten straw



  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. Use sounds. Sounds create unease and fear in the reader’s subconscious – perfect for this type of scene. Here are some ideas:

Rodents’ feet

Shuffling straw

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

  1. 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

Rough blanket


Sodden straw

Chilly air


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.




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.




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.



Do you want to give the readers such a vivid experience that they feel the events of the story are real and they’re right there? Do you want them to forget their own world and worries, and live in the main character’s head and heart? The magic wand for achieving this is Deep Point of View.
This book is available as a Kindle ebook, paperback or audiobook





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.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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11 Responses to “Writing Captivity Scenes – by Rayne Hall”

  1. Yikes, just reading these suggestions gives me the chills! I think I’d scare myself silly if I wrote this type of scene, but I’ve bookmarked your post in case I’m ever brave enough to try it!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 7, 2017, 2:18 am
    • Hi Becke,
      If you don’t want to chill your readers, simply use only the techniques that suit your kind of story. Not every novel needs the sound of torture instruments. 🙂
      For example, a light modern romance novel might involve a heroine getting kidnapped and held for ransom. In this case, you may describe the sound of her captors’ footsteps and the rattling of keys in the lock, but you wouldn’t have the smells of blood, faeces and rotting straw.
      Simply choose what suits your genre, story and your style.

      Posted by Rayne Hall | April 7, 2017, 12:14 pm
  2. Morning Rayne…

    Your post made me think of Game of Thrones. =) Lots of characters are imprisoned there, and yup, all of this applies! The flickering lights, the cold, the damp, the smells and rats. I know I’ve read some historicals that hit the same notes as well.

    The longer a prisoner is in confinement, the more they’d become used to most of these though. Is it best to keep confinement for a limited amount of time for most stories?



    Posted by Carrie Peters | April 7, 2017, 9:22 am
    • Hi Carrie,
      Yes, A Game of Thrones is a good example for vividly imagined scenes, including captivity scenes. The use of senses and details makes them so real that the reader is really there with the captive.

      It’s true that the longer the prisoner is in confinement, the more they’d become used to things, and what they’re used to, they no longer consciously observe.

      I don’t think this means you should limit the time of the confinement. Let them languish in prison for as long as the plot requires.

      Instead, I recommend placing some descriptions at the beginning of the captivity period, when the captive notices them for the first time. This applies especially to smells. Describe smells the moment the prisoner enters the cell, because after a short time, smells become unnoticeable. The flavour and texture of the food are noticed more during the first few meals than later.

      Other aspects can come later, for example, the prisoner may feel really cold even after months of confinement.


      Posted by Rayne Hall | April 7, 2017, 12:21 pm
  3. Thanks for featuring my article!

    Posted by Rayne Hall | April 7, 2017, 12:07 pm
  4. I recently wrote just such a scene. I didn’t think about it being cold though–great idea!

    “Six hours later the smell of sweat, beans, and Bully Beef assaulted Darcy’s nostrils as he followed a guard down a prison corridor. Angry voices echoed through the cavernous halls. The corporal ushered Darcy through an iron-clad door that groaned on its hinges and then closed with a clang behind him. Darcy glanced back at the barrier and shuddered. The prisoners housed in this ward faced a bleak future.”

    Posted by Ginger Monette | April 7, 2017, 4:22 pm
  5. It really made me realise what is possible.

    Posted by Barbara | April 10, 2017, 4:45 am


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