Edginess is all the rage these days. Has been, for a long time, really. Push the envelope. Do something shocking and different. And that’s is all true and good – to an extent.
Once upon a time, a little film you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind made waves by using the word ‘damn’. Scandalous. And for the time, it was. And I am pretty sure we can all agree that standards when it came to books and movies in the era were pretty far out of whack.
Nowadays, not so much. It is, to borrow from V for Vendetta, the land of do as you please. This has some really good instances- think of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. Shocking, edgy and unexpected.
On the flipside, you have to work really hard to be shocking and edgy, and a lot of authors jump from that side of the line to outright brutality. I’m not going to debate the artistic merits, or lack thereof, of brutality- if that’s your thing, Marquis de Sade is out there for you to read. But think of the sheer number of books and movies that feature an inciting incident that involves a wife/girlfriend and/or child being some combination of raped/tortured/murdered. Shocking, right?
Sorry, no. A couple things: First, no. It’s lazy. Sure, a significant other or child being brutalized would set me on a path to revenge, but it’s still distasteful. Does that mean it should never be done? Of course not- there are plenty of examples of good literature that include those elements. But it is lazy writing. Because of the emotional punch that the reader receives by empathizing with the protagonist, it elicits a reaction.
But it is overdone, and usually poorly done, and usually the focus is on the wrong thing. Don’t believe me? As any editor how many submissions they receive which feature – and glorify – such brutality. I’ll wait. Back? Told you so. So in addition to being a cheap inciting incident, it’s overdone, and any true edge is lost.
So what would be the non-lazy way of going about it? Think of The Count of Monte Christo- who suffers? Someone innocent? No – our protagonist. We still empathize with him, and with his suffering – in fact, to a depth that we would not achieve were Mercedes raped and/or murdered – which is the road many authors these days would go.
In fact, the tale of revenge is so deep that when he begins to terrorize other’s families, we excuse it! We are so deep in his head, his feelings so much our own, that it traces through the rest of the book. It is not something spurred by a hero kneeling in the rain, holding a body, shouting Noooooooo before going on a rampage. It is a human, who is wronged deeply, and not only goes on a journey of revenge, but by the end, is forced to judge himself for his actions.
Edginess is a useful tool. But it is not the only tool, and if you lean to hard on it, you’ll find yourself with a shallow work, lacking subtlety and substance.