Monday, December 17, 2007

Stepping Razors - Life at the Edge

Serendipity: Charles' post today, combined with Peter Tosh singing Stepping Razor (a childhood favorite!) gave me this topic.

Fiction is about edges. Extreme edges. Nasty and jagged edges or so-sharp-you-never-feel-the-cut-til-you-see-the-blood edges.

If you've got your stakes right, your story happens at the exact moment, the edge, where one thing becomes another.

Sure, I write thrillers. Edges come naturally, since the stakes tend to be truly overwhelming threats. But imagine something a bit more... literary. A marriage in danger.

Betty suspects Joe of cheating. There have been little signs, nothing strong enough to confront Joe on, but tiny things adding up in the back of her head. Day to day, they go about their married life together with this tension between them. Every look, every gesture, Betty tells herself she's crazy to worry, or she tells herself she must be right. Betty is eating herself alive wondering if Joe is faithful.

Tension? Yup. Stakes? Sure. But there's no story here. Not yet. This is all the face of the blade, the flat of the sword. We have yet to reach the edge.

There's nothing happening.

To have a story, you have to push this situation to the breaking point. Betty finds someone else's panties in Joe's pocket. Or a matchbook from a gay bar. An adult movie company sends Joe a check or a strange woman shows up on the doorstep, belly swollen and pregnant.

That's where the story happens. Joe can turn out to be faithful or not. The story can be comedy, tragedy, adventure, whatever. But it doesn't start until you reach the very edge of the situation.

Can't you show any of that blade face? Sure. Exactly as much as you need to make the reader's heart race when she sees the edge. My usual rule of thumb is a chapter, maybe two. This is Life Before. After this, nothing will ever be the same....

Everybody up to speed with that? Okay. Because now I'm diving into the Full Throttle Toolbox of Cheap and Dirty Tricks!

Subtly amplify this sense of edges and stakes with setting.

Put your story in a coastal community, and set your scenes of greatest tension right on the beach, where water meets land.

Or a crossroads. A border town. A bridge. A place poised on the edge of becoming something else (torn down, built up, etc.).

Set a story in the last days of winter, so that it ends with a green and vibrant spring.

Set your story around a wedding, a birth, a festival.

Set important scenes at seminal times of day: sunset, dawn, high noon, midnight.

Combine any of these setting elements to add to the tension inherent (hopefully inherent!) in your stakes. After all, Frank McCourt's train gets in at High Noon, not 11:38AM.

And anything happening is more interesting in a border town before a storm front breaks a long and brutal heat wave, or at a sunset wedding on the beach. And standing in the crossroads at midnight?



Shauna Roberts said...

Another great post worthy of printing out and saving. Thanks.

Would you say that some settings on the edge add more tension than others? For example, noon on the first nice day of spring vs. midnight in the first blizzard of winter, or finally getting a parking space at work vs. finally getting a good job after months of unemployment.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Great advice! Thanks so much!

Steve Malley said...

Thanks shauna, alyssa!

I sort've figured the setting would be chosen to match the story, but fun could be had playing against type!

And getting that job, show us those eviction/foreclosure notices, etc. 'Pursuit of Happyness' is a great example of a job hunt pushed right out to the sharp edge!

cs harris said...

A thought-provoking post. Another thing one frequently does by instinct, but I've never seen it delineated like this. Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

I like the analogy of the flat of the blade versus the edge. Setting is also so critical, and so much fun to work with. I love a good weather related set up.

Lisa said...

I think what you've described is exactly the distinction between compelling contemporary/literary fiction and the kind that puts readers to sleep. Without a mystery or a murder or fantastic elements, situations that hone in on normal people can be either dull and uneventful or fascinating. Writers who know how to use setting to amplify stakes (always without us being consciously aware of it, of course) are the ones who keep us turning pages. Thank you for putting a magnifying glass on this distinction. Great post.

Shauna Roberts said...

Steve, I've nominated you for A Roar for Powerful Words award. See my blog entry today at