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?