Operating Close to the Edge
Here’s something I learned from my friend Paul. He has a metric he applies to characters in a book or a movie. He asks, “How close are they to the edge?”
What he means is, “How desperate is this character? How capable is he of going to extremes?”
Paul’s theory is that, if we want to write a character who is riveting, we have to give that character a moment to perform some extravagant action—the sooner in the story the better. The character has to announce to the audience, “I am hanging on by my fingernails. Don’t take your eyes off me because I am capable of doing anything.”
According to Paul, the closer a character is to the edge, the more interesting he will be and the more potential drama he will bring to the story.
Take Tony Soprano. Part of what made that character so watchable—and this is true of just about every character on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Mad Men (to cite only cable dramas)—is that they were ready at any moment, it seemed, to take off-the-wall action. The clerk in a donut shop keeps Christopher waiting; the next thing you know, Christopher has his gun out and is shooting the dude in the foot. Carmela flirts with her priest and falls in love with Furio, her husband’s bodyguard. Even the most minor, minor character—Vito Spatafore’s troubled prepubescent son—is capable of an action that makes us cover our eyes and cringe.
They’re operating close to the edge.
Why is that good for drama? Because a protagonist, whether it’s Richard III or Emma Bovary or Mathew McConaughey as Mud (or as Dallas in Magic Mike or Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club), if he’s going to make the story work, has to be willing to push the drama to the limit. The hero must be capable of wringing the last ounce of revelation from the story. If he stops short, we walk out grumbling and cursing.
Sometimes the Coen Brothers (I’m a big fan) will write characters who are not close to the edge. Llewyn Davis is one. It almost never works. The brothers are doing it deliberately, though I confess I haven’t been able to figure out why, or what they’re trying to accomplish, though I commend them for the effort.
In real life of course, most of us try to stay as far from the edge as possible. We don’t seek danger. We don’t tempt fate. We want a nice, quiet life so we can raise our family, keep our job, do our work.
That’s great for real life, but it’s hell for a dramatic protagonist.
Why did Anthony Weiner’s story stay so long on the front page? Because we could sense that he was close to the edge. He had to be, or why would he do what he did?
We’re drawn to characters who look like they’re about to implode or explode. Why? Because we’ll learn something when they do. We’re waiting for the train wreck. So we can see human nature raw and exposed.
In real life, most ready-to-blow characters back off short of the ultimate explosion. They apologize to the press like Chris Christie. Or they recede from public view like Edward Snowden.
That doesn’t work for drama. The character has to stay out front, and he or she has to keep edging (or barreling) closer and closer to the edge. You, the writer, have to push them there. And with each step, their actions have to show us more about the nature of the human heart.
The writing of drama is a crazy business. The practitioner needs to keep her own life simple and safe so she can do her work. But her characters have to go all the way to the edge—and over.
In Shawn’s upcoming book, The Story Grid, he explores the dozens of reality-check questions that the writer has to ask himself about his work (or his editor has to ask). What’s my inciting incident? What does my protagonist want? What are the conventions of the genre I’m writing in and have I adhered to them or, if I’ve violated them, what is my purpose?
Paul’s is one of those questions: “How close to the edge are my characters?”
And how can I push them even closer?
Hi Stephen, I like reading your posts but Shawn’s name keeps popping up and I do not know who he is? That is my first question or response, and my second in terms of this post–I think Freud helps us here too…full disclosure I am a licensed clinical psychologist but writing is my first love–Freud suggests that we sublimate, repress, reaction formation,or project as part of our defense mechanisms in dealing with our unwanted parts. I think we need to create characters who expose these unwanted parts first (and not necessarily view the trajectory of their lives as cliff hangers, per se) and then we can use other psychological mechanisms that help reveal their characters. Perhaps the use of this thwarted character, Llewyn Davis, represents some of these freudian aspects. I don’t know because I havent seen the film yet but plan to. Just adding some extra powdered sugar on top of your sweet apple pie (analysis).
This is a timely and much appreciated reminder for me. I’ve been writing what I thought was Draft 2 of my novel, but in all honesty it’s more accurate to call it Draft 1A. I keep looking around on the ground for more rocks to throw at my characters…thanks for the visual of pushing them ever closer to the edge of the cliff.
You can’t see what a character is made of if you don’t push her to places where her principles are pushed into a major conflict with her needs.
Otherwise the reader loses interest. Heck, I lose interest, and I’m doing the writing. For me, that’s where the extreme plotting in the beginning makes sure the writing time is going to be spent on something worthwhile.
I have a bunch of ‘and then a miracle happens’ points – because I know I’m going to have to work hard to justify the reader’s belief in what has to happen. I don’t know exactly ‘how’ when I start; I just know that, to get from the beginning to the end, I’m going to have to make patent what is hidden, and it isn’t going to be easy.
Great post as usual. I agree that a character who lives on the edge is the most compelling and exciting to follow. But I don’t necessarily agree that the writer has to live a “simple and safe” life to do their work. With me, it’s been times that I’ve been on the edge in my personal life that I have created some of my best creative work. Sometimes when everything is chaotic, the only reliable place I can retreat to is my writing. So while everything is going crazy, a sensible person would try to rein in the drama and methodically straighten out all the mess and get back on track. Not me. I find a corner to sit down and write, and generally let everything keep mounting to crisis stage. Doesn’t make sense, I know. But at least when the crisis over, I have my neat stack of pages that I’ve written.
Good to hear. All I want to do right now is hide in a corner and write – everything is going to pot.
I do save the angst and use it, if possible – some things are too raw – but my instinct is to pull into a hole and write, and I’m not being allowed to. I’ll keep trying.
Alicia and Pheralyn, I confess I agree. Sometimes those close-to-the-edge times produce the best work. Tough to stay there year after year though …
Timely advice for me, sir. I’ve got a about a dozen plates spinning in a script right now, and the ones I like best are ones that are wobbling. You just told me why. Thank you.
By the way, I got The Legend of Bagger Vance for Christmas. I’m reading it at night and listening your (very well produced) audio version of The Authentic Swing during my commute to work. Okay, maybe I’m kind of OD-ing on Pressfield, but it is a great exercise.
Funny timing about this post, I was just talking to a story editor for WME about “Active Protagonist’s” and how they are needed to move the story.
I love this, Steve!
“That’s great for real life, but it’s hell for a dramatic protagonist.”
I just keep imagining someone walking out on Jay’s dock, clapping a hand on Gatsby’s shoulder, and saying “Let it go, man. Let. It. Go.” Great advice in real life, but it would have killed the storyline, should Gatsby have followed the advice.
Even the way we talk about things like this says everything. We say that good advice and keeping a level head can “save you a lot of drama.”
And when someone does lose it, we say they “made a scene.”
This gels together a lot of pieces I’ve stumbled over before but never quite connected the dots on. Work with Characters who are headed for a lot of drama and who aren’t afraid to make a scene — characters who are on the edge.
Some of the best writing advice I’ve heard in a long time. Thanks so much for writing this.
I loved the post. But I’m simply responded to thank you, Jeff, for the laugh and a visual that will now be with me forever. “Let it go, man. Let. It. Go.” Brilliant.
Jeff and Deb, great about Gatsby’s green light. And I had never connected “making a scene” to literary scenes. Right on target, thanks!
I just love this! And always enjoy your insight and perspective. The irony is, I’ve decided to take a big chance to move across county from the west back to my roots, by doing so I’m leaving behind comfort and leaping into the uncertainly and starting all over again. After reading this article, it gives me more inspiration. Thank you again Mr. Pressfield!
I am writing my Autobiography which I started 23 years ago. Reading this post I have learned some new definitions of myself. they are: drama protagonist,
train wreck, close to the edge, interesting, off-the-wall action, desperate, capable, extremist, riveting,
extravagent action, capable of doing anything, hanging by my fingernails.
I am all that and the Hero of my story.
Ooh Wee! What A Life!
If I could get it published my journey will reach its destiny.
Yes, we are ordinary people, We don’t seek danger. We don’t tempt fate. We want a nice, quiet life so we can raise our family, keep our job, do our work.replicahandbagsus2013.com
This is somewhat interesting, I gotta say.
I got kicked out of acting school (in LA) because I was too “over the edge” — until this very day, I have seen that as a blight on my potential as an actor, or even as a writer. But what I’m hearing (from my own mind, of course) is that possibly it had nothing to do with me, they just couldn’t handle it.
You know? That feels pretty good. Someone else, however, not long ago, said that such raw and edgy emotionality must be Used; that is, I think, not to get lost in it but to retain “rationality” while, in some part of the self, being completely out there. I’ll need to look into this for myself, but this post started the process — so thanks very much.
This probably goes without saying, but “close to the edge” does not necessarily mean Christie-like implosions, or Soprano-like explosions. (That might be reversed, I’m not sure.)
For example, Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most iconic figure in literature. He is always “close to the edge” – so is Watson – but it’s his edge. Or consider Pride & Prejudice, one of the greatest novels, perhaps the greatest romance. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are always “on edge,” but it’s the genre and character defined edge.
“Close to the edge” means, I think, under stress, at the balance point, or critical decision making structure. Tension maintenance. In chess, it takes nerves of steel to maintain an undefined pawn structure or a position of high tactics. Lots of variables, and any decision may be fatal or triumphant.
So perhaps “close to the edge” is what us literary analyst types might call “dynamic tension.” (I’m thinking of Dickens and the recent best-seller The Help as further examples.)
By the way, I think in daily life we also live “close to the edge.” Eliot’s “Prufrock” talks ironically about it (“do I dare to eat a peach”), but the friction of relationships is often edgy – how will I get my child up and ready for school without either of us losing temper or dignity, etc.
The little edges magnify: so we learn from fractals.
Steve, you’re always a true joy to read!