#SaysTheEditor: Breaking Point


You’ll often see experts talk about torturing our characters, and the need to do it. There are good reasons for it.

Yesterday, for me, was a breaking point day. You know: one of those days where the day was going really well, I got good news, and then bam! Six things went wrong all at once and they mostly turned out to be minor — although the prospect of sticking me with needles is never minor — but for awhile there, I felt like I was Atlas.

Push your characters to this point. And like my day yesterday, it doesn’t have to be life-threatening stuff (well, for your character. For the doctor suggesting the needle? That might be another story). It can be stuff that hits within the span of an hour. A wallet that falls into that obnoxious crack between the seat and the front console. A gas cap that won’t loosen. Witnessing a car accident and knowing that if you don’t stop, you’ll kick yourself all day. *

In other words: maximum density can shove you to your breaking point, and fast.

When you (or your characters) hit these breaking point moments, it’s how they (or you) deal that defines character. It’s okay to want to curl up in a corner and cry, but it’s another thing to actually do it. It’s okay to fantasize about using the car’s undermounted cannons to blow the windshield out of the car tailgating you for doing only 20 mph over the speed limit. It’s another thing to actually mount the cannons. And it’s another thing entirely to be the person who pulls over onto the shoulder and puts your head down on the steering wheel, scared of how close the tailgating asshole came to climbing into your backseat by way of your trunk. And an entirely different character will flip the driver the finger and slow down to 20 mph below the speed limit, just to mess with the guy’s head.

Go there. No, not personally because those days suck (although they’ll remind you what you’re made of). But take your characters there.

The trick for success lies in the writing, of course. Conveying a breaking point can be difficult because while the stimulus is external, the stress is internal. Going overboard into overwrought is easy, but it’s even easier to skip the emotion entirely. One second your character is driving along, singing along to the latest Papa Roach single and the next? Bam. Explosion, of the emotional kind. Where was the build-up? Suddenly, this character seems… well, unstable, and not in a good way. More like what happens when meth production goes wrong.

Those quick emotional blow-ups are hard to swallow. The character’s motivation needs to be clear. As the writer, you need to take us into their head, at least a little bit. Let us feel the emotion build. It doesn’t have to be “His head started to buzz with his fury.”

Maybe it’s:

While the asshole in the black Chevy crept closer, she took a deep breath and reminded herself to be gentle with the buttons on the radio. Punching them so hard her fingers hurt wouldn’t make a good song come on, but man, a good song right then? Would let her breathe. Singing along ought to help calm her nerves, which were feeling more and more shredded as more and more of the Chevy filled her rearview mirror. She told herself not to, but she glanced again at that mirror and tried to swallow. If she had to stop fast…

She eyed the pullout ahead. Was anyone in it? No. Good. Score one for good.

She scanned the light ahead. Would it turn yellow before she got to it? If she ran it, surely the Chevy would, too. But if she stopped, would the Chevy? What would she say to the cops? How long would it take for them to show up, would the Chevy’s driver approach, and would the cops ticket HER for going too fast in the first place? Would anyone around them stop and say yes, the Chevy was so hard on her tail that she had no choice but to do what he wanted? Did people like that really exist anymore?

The light stayed green. The Chevy turned as quietly as it had crept up on her, without even the satisfaction of squealing tires. That had been one tight, hard turn. And the tires had stayed silent. No squeal to reprimand her for not doing what the driver wanted.

She swallowed hard and took a cleansing breath. It would get better. She was only a mile from home.

“I got this,” she said aloud.

When she got near the house, the first thing she noticed was that someone had knocked her mailbox over. She pulled up in front, instead of onto the driveway. It was a little full, the driveway, with a mailbox post right where her car needed to go. Great. Just great.

Her hands shook, so she took the extra second to make sure she put the car in park, pulled the hand brake, turned the key in the ignition. Another deep breath — why did they work in class but not in real life? — and a flick of the door locks. Open door. She continued to walk herself through each step.

Out on the driveway, she pulled her foot back to kick the stupid-assed mailbox — but stopped herself. It wasn’t the mailbox’s fault, and the last thing she needed after all this was a visit to the ER with a broken foot. THAT would be fun to explain.

This time, her deep breath wasn’t attempting to clean anything. She let it out between gritted front teeth, directing it up into her face, and reminded herself to bend at the knees so she could haul the mailbox to the side.

Crying would feel good right about then, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of what to do about the stupid-assed mailbox. And right then, the mailbox took precedence over a good cry.

* These are examples pulled mostly out of thin air. Not all of ’em were part of my day yesterday. And no, I won’t fess up about which is fiction and which ain’t. It’s over. Time to move forward, into this fun fictional scene.


1 Comment

  1. Dana Griffin

    February 5, 2015 12:59 pm

    Cool post. When’s the memoir of this day being published? 🙂 Hang in there. I hope the last month has been better than it seems the day you wrote this was.

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