Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Cutting Edge

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in on someone else’s critique. The scene under discussion was a gripping one. The hero and heroine were in danger—and he was at a distinct disadvantage. To my surprise, though, several writers told the author, “Cut his vulnerability.”

Why? Because his situation touched something visceral in each and every one of us. And none of us were entirely comfortable with that.

Now, if you’re a writer, you’ve been to those workshops where the industry's top editors and agents teach us to up the stakes. Make things bad for the good guys, they tell us. Then, make things worse.

But how do we know when things are worse? Well, in real life, our palms sweat and our stomachs knot. It’s the same in fiction.

Of course, there is such a thing as going too far. When your hero is too hot to handle for no reason at all, or your heroine is TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), or your villain vividly violates the deepest taboos of our society and we see it page after page after page, you might consider dialing it back a notch. Because your reader needs to have a knee-jerk reaction, not a gut-wrenching experience.

However, it’s a visceral reaction that gets your readers emotionally invested in the outcome of your story. When your reader laughs or cries or cheers or boos, she’ll stick with you to the end of your novel—and throughout your career. So don’t be afraid to make that heroine a little more brash or that hero a little more vulnerable. Provoke a reaction. Rather than cut those details from your scenes, push the situation to the very edge. That’s what I call the Cutting Edge.

Many of our favorite books engage us emotionally by pushing us to the Cutting Edge. If you're not sure you can lay your finger on the Cutting Edge, check out these bestsellers from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Lisa Kleypas’ Sugar Daddy, Harlan Coben’s Long Lost to Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and J.D. Robb’s Naked in Death to Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde.

Now it’s your turn to talk to the Rockville 8. As a writer, have you ever stepped back from the Cutting Edge? Why? Did you regret it? As a reader, which of your favorite books push your emotional buttons to the Cutting Edge?


  1. Here's the thing: ALL of my favorite books deliver that emotional experience. And it's something I'm beginning to think about -- in a new way -- in my own writing. The great thing about my critique group is that I can always tell when I deliver -- and when I DON'T. LOL.

  2. You know, Yvonne, the more I think about it, the more I think I gravitate toward books/authors offering specific emotions. I mean, I don't always want to feel what some writers have on offer. Maybe we all automatically know what we want in our emotional experiences as readers, if not as writers. Of course, I'd read your work any day!

  3. I'm like you, Nic, I think. Sometimes I'll go to my library hoard for a specific author knowing exactly the emotional experience I'll have while reading it. And usually I really am looking for emotion, not just laughter or some sort of intellectual romp.

    Now, your question "Have I ever stepped back" is timely, given our last crit group! I *did* step back from an edge while rewriting a scene and it's arguable at this point whether that will turn out to be a good thing or a bad one. Will have to see if cutting there allows for a bigger payoff later.

    It's a fascinating question, though, isn't it? What setting is your emotional dial on and when to you turn it up, down, back, high or off.

  4. Nicole ~ I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head when you mention that we each, as readers, go for a certain emotional pay off. It's why a certain author is our favorite. Or why we gravitate to a certain genre. Each genre gives its own unique emotional payoff. And that's why the fans of a specific genre can be so rabid about certain tropes or conventions--because reader expectations are built into genre fiction (and even literary fiction). We pick up a book because we know it will have the emotional payoff we're banking on. Great post!

  5. And I did not tell said writer to cut the vulnerability. I told her I didn't like it. That's entirely different. ;) I love the character and I didn't want to see him tortured in a particular way. Doesn't mean I won't read it. Or like it for that matter when all is said and done. Commence with the torturing. Just convince me it's necessesary and the only viable option to move the story/character forward. ;0)

  6. Keely, what will that "bigger payoff" look like now that you've cut?

    And, Candy! Glad you like the post! And I see you're confessing to being in on the critique session in question. No need to defend your opinion! You're entitled to it and it was thought-provoking. Well done! As an observer it really struck me how the scene punched buttons in EVERYONE. While there migh not have been consensus, awesome is that button pushing?!? May we all learn to do that.