Friday, August 5, 2011

Use of Torture in Fiction

I'd like to welcome Tessa Stockton to Redwood's Medical Edge. Today, she guest blogs about a controversial subject-- use of torture in fiction. How much violence is too much violence?
Welcome, Tessa.
I have an odd fascination with torture and how to apply it in novels with believability. Since I’ve written a political intrigue series based in South America, touching on some of the endless conflicts between the politically left and the right, the subject of torture comes up in my research. A lot.
The interest started about 17 years ago while I worked with human rights groups. During a time where I had read so many testimonies from survivors of torture, I experienced a shift in my life’s direction and began applying what I learned toward what I wanted to convey through writing stories.
Reading testimonies is one thing. They can be incredibly stirring and influential. However, sometimes details need to be backed up by medical facts, such as the physical and psychological responses—not just the emotive. As an example, if a central character endures electric shock treatment, a writer needs to know how their body reacts—not just, “It hurt.” The swelling of a tongue and the immense thirst contribute to a likely residue. Also, if one drinks water too soon after “the session” he or she can suffer a heart attack. If a person’s nails are yanked, sometimes they can grow back in time, sometimes they can’t if the nail bed is too damaged.
This information is important, say, if you base a story around someone who is a political prisoner and who endured sessions in the “operating theater,” (my novel forthcoming), where spiritual healing coincides with physical healing.
While I don’t like my novels to get too graphic, I feel some description of this nature makes them more realistic. I try to strike a balance, inserting key depictions where most appropriate.
My debut novel, The Unforgivable, which released through Risen Books on April 1, 2011, is a love story entangled in the aftermath of Argentina’s Dirty War. In a nutshell, a Christian woman falls in love with a man who is despised by his nation, accused of war crimes, and who faces trial. There is a necessary chapter in my book entitled, “Private Testimony.” It’s necessary, because it causes the protagonist to shift in how she views this man with whom she has fallen in love. When she hears a survivor’s real life experience in undergoing an interrogation, suddenly a giant hurdle blocks the relationship with her love interest—especially with the claim that he was the one who quite possibly conducted and/or ordered the interrogation.
Details, details, details! They’re often gruesome but manageable. Here’s what I did in an excerpt, spoken from “Rosa,” the survivor:
“Electricity became intimate with me—forced its intimacy through pain I had never known—when it made contact with every part of my body, even my tongue which swelled, and under my nails.

 This man, my interrogator, focused especially on those areas that should have been hidden from him and all men, aside from my husband,” Paloma interpreted. “This man preferred applying shock to those parts the most. I did not recognize my own voice when I screamed. It made me feel like an animal. I defecated on myself. I begged for mercy. I remember thinking: this is what hell is. I had died and gone to hell.

“Soon after—but I really do not know how much time had lapsed—everything blurred and things like time became insignificant. Nothing mattered except for the need to survive.”

So, how much is too much?—because too little often doesn’t deliver the same weight—not if you’re a realist. Well, I’m a romantic realist—but that’s another story! While I like to insert a few “special descriptions” to give a scene that sense of horrible reality, I try not to go overboard. I might write a scene but use milder words when pointing out certain body parts for instance. Torture is by nature horrific but can be filtered for generality—if its inclusion is necessary for plot enhancement.
I can never read too little on the subject. Knowledge is useful. The more I learn the better I can write. Strange but true, fiction serves an array of purposes—even with its use of torture.


A former contemporary dancer and missionary, Tessa Stockton, who has also been active in politics and human rights groups, now writes Christian novels. The Unforgivable, now available in Paperback, Kindle & Nook, is her first book in the political intrigue series, Wounds of South America. For more information, visit her at


  1. Tessa, I thought you handled that scene quite aptly--enough detail that the reader can understand Rosa's pain as well as the impact the description must have had on your heroine. Sometimes too much detail does more than shock the reader; it rips her out of the main story. If she loses a grip on who she's rooting for and why, she'll put the book down.

  2. Ramona,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I agree. I think Tessa handled this topic really well.

  3. Balance is the key to most things in life, I think. Sometimes it can be difficult with this subject matter and I'm constantly weighing it, but I find encouragement in your words, Ramona. Thank you for your thoughts.

    And thank you, Jordyn. What a treat to be a guest on your blog!

  4. Tessa,
    You are right about having the right amount of description in there. Too little and the reader does not feel it which is necessary for an emotional response, too much and it becomes a turn off. When writing my book I worked very closely with my developmental editor in achieving that perfect amount of detail. Great Job!

    Marie Crist

  5. You have a fascinating background and angle. I must admit that torture is a hard one for me--I really like Linda Castillo and Chelsea Cain as writers, but the violence sometimes makes me flip pages faster than I'd like to. I like the way you describe its necessity and uses.

  6. Marie, thanks so much for your comment. Glad to have you here.

    Jenny... good points. I'm a Chelsea Cain fan too. I thought she had one of the most interesting premises I'd seen in a long time but some of her scenes can be very edgy. Thanks for following!