Building Suspense in Captivity


IF YOU’RE WRITING A NOVEL, is there a scene where the heroine is imprisoned or locked up against her will?

Here are some techniques to make this scene powerful.

1. If possible, make the room dark or semi-dark. Perhaps she’s locked up in a lightless cellar, in a dungeon where only the flames of the torches flicker in the gloom,  or in a chamber where the villain has cut off the power supply. Maybe there’s a single window is so high up and narrow that it lets in scarce light.

2. Solitary confinement is scariest. If your heroine 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.

3. Let it be cold. 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.

4. 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 door

Rattling keys

Screeching lock

Guard’s boots thudding outside

5. Mention an unpleasant smell or two:

Sour stench of urine

Excrement from previous prisoners

Old sweat


Rodent excrement

Rotten straw



6. 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

7. Perhaps you can involve the sense of taste as well. However, this may not be appropriate for all captivity scenes.

If the villain has gagged her, you can describe how that gag tastes. If she’s in a dungeon or prison, describe the flavour of the food. The food quality is probably appalling, but if she’s hungry, it won’t taste too bad.

8. While she’s imprisoned, she can’t do much beyond explore her surroundings in search of a way out. She will probably think more than she does during fast-paced action scenes. When sharing her thoughts and feelings, make sure she doesn’t wallow in despair. Although she may feel dejected, she keeps searching a way out. Create a tiny hope, let her plan. Later, this plan will fail, but it’s important to show some hope in order to create suspense.


If you’re planning or revising a captivity scene for your novel and have questions, leave a comment. I’ll be around for a week and will reply. I love answering questions.


Please click the book cover image to read more about author/editor Rayne Hall and her books. 

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