Writing Cruelty

Some of us—dare I say most of us?—are not inherently cruel or sadistic. Therefore, when our plots require a scene that involves such behavior, there is a great temptation to fall back on the stereotypes of many TV shows and movies. Don’t. If you need really gruesome, vivid, compelling cruelty, look to reality!


historical torture
As you may know, I recently toured northern Italy. In San Gimignano (“of the beautiful towers”) I visited the earliest of the city’s torture museums.
And of course I bought a book.


tortura inquisizione
The implements on display were truly horrifying—and thought-provoking!


stretching rack
Not long ago, I had a medical procedure that required me to lie absolutely motionless, face-down, arms stretched above my head for 45 minutes. By the end of the procedure, my shoulders ached and muscles twitched, and I wondered how long those condemned to the rack might last before at least passing out.


head crusher
My point here is that although many types of torture are intended to cause death eventually, this doesn’t happen immediately. Might writers use a less-than-lethal version? For example, using an implement like a head crusher only to the point of cracking the skull bones.


Some mechanisms that I would label instruments of torture had other purposes—at least ostensibly. But besides ensuring a woman’s virtue, consider the discomfort of long-term use, and the humiliation of such an item at all.


Immobilizing someone in any way becomes painful after a time.


And many body parts, from skin to fingers and toes, tongues and scalps, can be removed without causing death. Ditto broken bones.


It is possible to force someone to drink so much water—or other liquid—that the stomach actually explodes. But short of that? What about a parent pinching a child’s nose shut and forcing her/him to drink milk?


punishment necklace
Forcing someone to wear a heavy weight around the neck is tiring, humiliating, and eventually very painful. What about a modern version, that required the wearing of a loaded backpack without relief?


My point is that if you need inspiration for a truly cruel and haunting scene, you really don’t need to be able to create it out of thin air. Start with what people are known to have done!

Nimrod Lingers… You, Too, Could Benefit!

I’m still working on re-entry. The thing about Nimrod is that there is always something to see. Here is a selection of things you might use as writing prompts:


The frog statue is supposed to be Elvis. You know the story of the princess kissing a frog and turning him into a prince. Who might have kissed The King to turn him into a frog?


elvis frog nimrod hall
Who might have curated these collections, and why are these particular items of interest?
Write your own rules. Or write about a place that would post the ones below. What happens if someone breaks the rules?

What if an uninvited guest drops by?

Notice the edge of a folding chair just visible in the big, hollow sycamore. Write about who might be using that chair, and why.


sycamore tree writing prompt
Or try your hand at writing flash fiction and include all the items from one–or more–of these groups.






And when all is said and done, if you aren’t writing at or about Nimrod, read!


And this really is all till next year!

Nimrod Hall, established in 1783, has been providing summer respite from everyday stress since 1906. It has been operating as an artist and writer colony for over 25 years. The Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program is a non-competitive, inspirational environment for artists to create without the distractions of everyday life. 

Motivation is in the Eye of the Beholder

eye, green eye, point of view, motivation for writers, authors
People have long recognized the eye-of-the-beholder effect with regard to beauty, to the point that it’s a cliché. We’ve all heard jokes that leave us cold—but leave others doubled over with laughter—or vice versa. Writers are well aware that what’s publishable depends more on the evaluation of the editor/agent/publisher than the inherent qualities of the work.


So, apply that same awareness to motivation. We cannot know motivation directly. We can see what a person does, hear what a person says. These are two of the most common, most powerful sources of information.
ear, listening, writers, authors, understanding motivation
Sometimes we have other sensory information, meaning touch, taste, or smell. Sometimes the information accumulates over time, perhaps years, and we feel we truly know someone.
woman, author, writer, getting to know someone, motivation
But the bottom line is that we cannot know another from the inside. And that means room for interpretation. How we evaluate a specific behavior (physical or verbal) depends almost exclusively on why we think the person did it.

Writing Prompt: Characters’ Motivations

So writers, here’s your challenge. For each of the actions listed below, come up with three possible motives for the actor: one evil, one altruistic, and one self-interested. I know you can do it.

  1. giving away a million dollars
  2. shooting someone
  3. cutting off a hand or foot
  4. kissing someone of the same sex
  5. kissing someone of the other sex
  6. dancing naked in a public place
  7. getting a large, readily visible tattoo
  8. cooking an elaborate meal
  9. killing an ill person
  10. cutting up a bride’s wedding dress
  11. digging up a daffodil bed
  12. cheating at cards
  13. adopting a foster child
  14. running for president
  15. burning down a church
  16. adopting a cat or dog from a shelter
  17. complimenting another’s performance
  18. rewriting a will
  19. keeping a dead body unburied for six months
  20. hiking in the woods
The list could go on and on. In your writing, know your characters’ motives, as well as what other characters think the motives are. How will you reveal all that to your reader? Give sensory info!

I’d love to read your responses to today’s prompt. Did something surprising come out of the challenge? Tell me in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Psychology for Writers

psychology for writers

Roundup of Psychology for Writers series

Do You Have a Beautiful Bod or What? couple in snow

The Cold Facts About Sex 

Characters’ Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words 

Animal Writes 

Considering Creativity 

When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves: Psychology & Folk Wisdom 

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge? Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Frangible Characters

Toxic People Are Great

Writers Need Toxic Relationships 

Two Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing 

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest"Stop procrastinating. Start writing." Writers and procrastination.

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters 

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters 

Want to be published? Join Sisters in Crime at the Libbie Mill Library on Saturday, February 27, 2016, for “Paths to Getting Published–Mystery Authors Tell Their Tales.” A book signing and celebration of the publication of Virginia is for Mysteries II will follow.

Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II celebration on February 27th at Libbie Mill Library

Two Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing


"Stop procrastinating. Start writing." Writers and procrastination.We all know about procrastination: doing less urgent/important things instead of more important/urgent ones—or doing more enjoyable tasks when less appealing tasks are more needful; deliberately looking for distraction from the task at hand. Virtually everyone procrastinates sometimes, and 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. Some people boast that they “work to deadlines,” often hustling or cramming at the last minute. Another catch-phrase is, “I work better under pressure.” Really?

Some types of procrastination are common for writers: organizing the workspace and writing implements so thoroughly that the writing time’s compressed or obliterated; editing for the umpteenth time, so long that the piece is never really finished; immersing themselves in one more bit of research, perhaps going off on a tangent into something interesting, possibly useful for some other work in the future; even reading broadly for pleasure and muttering excuses that all reading is good for a writer. Let me be clear: organization, preparation, editing, research, and reading are not evil in and of themselves, only when they block actual forward movement in the manuscript.

Writers are people. And people suffer from procrastination. Late payment fees, lower grades, anger or disappointment from friends and family are immediate outcomes of some kinds of procrastination. But who cares if a writer puts off writing? If writing puts food on the table, it threatens livelihood. But whether that’s the case or no, not meeting one’s goals/commitments leads to guilt, depression, and low self-esteem.

According to one accessible source, Psychology Today, “procrastination reflects an on-gong struggle with self-control as well as an inability to know how we’ll feel tomorrow or the next day.” They have articles on everything from the history of procrastination to its relationship to morality, from ways to overcome procrastination to boredom at work. Some claim that procrastination is a defense mechanism against fear of failure: if the last-minute product isn’t perfect, the creator can take comfort in the knowledge that working on it more, it would have been better, could have been great. Then there is the positive side of procrastination: it reveals what one’s real motives and value are.

Takeaway one

Acknowledge whether/when/why you procrastinate in your writing life. Consider what that tells you about the importance of writing—for you.

Takeaway two

If writing is truly important, sweep aside the hurdles. Take baby steps—a page or two a day, no editing till there’s one complete draft. Don’t doubt yourself. Just do it. And if you need help with that, read all the on-line tips on overcoming procrastination. And if that doesn’t work, and you truly care, seek therapy. Help is out there.


Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

book cover of Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen
Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen has published numerous books that might be of interest to writers. Three titles that come to mind are You Just Don’t Understand (male/female communication patterns); Talking from Nine to Five (communication in the workplace); You’re Wearing That? (mother/daughter habits of communication). They are classics by now, but still relevant.

Book cover of You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen
You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen
Book cover of You Just Don't Understand! by Deborah Tannen
You Just Don’t Understand! by Deborah Tannen










Read more in my Psychology For Writers series

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

More Books by Deborah Tannen

You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives 

I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults 

The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words 

That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships 


Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Writers Need Empathy

The interview with Fiona Quinn started me thinking about the myriad ways that psychology and writing intersect. In particular, I’m now thinking about empathy—the feeling that you understand and share another’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share feelings. Psychology long assumed that empathy is a purely human emotion, though there are many who would disagree (witness observational studies of animals who form bonds of what appear to be friendship across species).

In any event, when a writer chooses a point of view character s/he is choosing the character with whom the reader is to identify. When done well, the reader sees the world through this POV character’s eyes and heart, understands the driving motives, and cheers for a positive outcome for that character. Perhaps empathy is a characteristic one either has or not. But (in my opinion) all good writers must have it. If you don’t care, if you don’t laugh or cry, why would the reader?