Where’s The Line In The Sand?

I love that scene from the Fellowship Of The Ring where Gandalf screams at the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” Awesome. That was a game changer scene – it ratcheted up the conflict several notches. Does your main character have a line in the sand, a personal boundary past which they will not cross? Don’t be subtle – give them a shove off the cliff.

Brandilyn Collins in her book Getting Into Character talks about making secret promises. Ever whispered a vow in the dark of the night, tears streaming down your cheeks? Maybe you were caught in the middle of a messy divorce. Maybe you experienced a trauma of some sort, the kind that haunts you – and down deep inside you made yourself a promise so that hurt never happens again: I will never…

Everyone has a line in the sand. A secret vow, a promise that drives them. No matter what else happens, this is one inviolable law. I didn’t fit in very well in elementary school, and the personal vow I made is: Never let them see you cry. For me to shed a tear in public (at a movie for instance) means I am under extreme duress. I believe most people have several of these vows, some innocuous, some more serious. Has that personal vow influenced your choices, your decisions, your plans? Of course it has, and your characters are exactly the same.

Game Changers

I listened to a presentation by an author about turning points in a story, she called them game changers. This is what happens when the writer flips a switch on the main character and lets them squirm. The rules get changed, something happens to force the story to veer right or left. This is a great place to push your character past their line in the sand.  I will never commit a crime. I will wait until I’m married to have sex. There’s much more to this concept that Collins goes deeper into in her book.

Now – push them off the cliff

One of the very best examples of these principles I’ve read is Blue Moon by Laurell K. Hamilton. I discovered Hamilton reading Donald Maass’ Writing the Break Out Novel. Hamilton’s character Anita Blake has several ‘rules’ or lines in the sand which have been firmly established in previous books in the series, but throughout Blue Moon Blake is almost systematically forced to violate one rule after another. It started off innocently enough, Blake is uncomfortable, she’s not happy, but she can shake it off. But as the novel continues, she finds herself choosing to do things she swore she’d never do that more than make her uncomfortable, she’s ready to vomit in shame and disgust. She takes it all on herself. Every time Blake was forced to throw her boundaries aside to accomplish what she saw as the greater good in a situation had me glued to the story. I was invested in the outcome. I understood the stakes. I understood that this was tearing her up inside, and she was doing it anyway because someone she loved needed her help. But it changed her. How could it not. Fabulous writing.

But the reverse can also work. I loved the movie Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. At the beginning of the movie, Foxx’s lawyer character comes across as a good guy, but definitely someone willing to cut corners to achieve what he sees as the greater good. Butler’s character gruesomely, and rather creatively, pushes Foxx to the very edge of sanity. By the end of the movie, Foxx is still bending the rules for a greater good, but Butler’s character has forced him to draw a line in the sand: Never make a deal with a murderer. I don’t know how well that movie did in the box office, but I thought the writing was stunning. (The whole movie is on Youtube if you’re willing to watch it in 11 parts.)

Have you given your character a line in the sand? Do you push them past that line over and over? I think this crosses genres, but what do you think? Could this technique work for any story? Know another story or movie that uses this technique especially well – share it in the comments.

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  1. says

    What a great post, Lisa! And what a great question. The movie/book/story that immediately came to my mind was Gone With The Wind. On her knees, digging for food in the muddy garden, Scarlett famously says at the movie’s intermission about half-way through the book, “As God is my witness, I will never go hungry again!” And we see just how far she’s willing to go to keep that vow. Now I’m thinking back on it and I can’t recall that she ever broke it. I wonder what would have made her do that?
    Diane Capri recently posted…New Short Story: Jack In A Box (the Hunt For Reacher Series)

    • says

      I never read the book – but maybe I’ll have to rewatch the movie again. That’s an awesome line. Thanks for sharing!

  2. says

    Thought-provoking post, Lisa, and I agree that Getting Into Character is a great book. Love the fly chapter.

    For me as a reader, crossing the line in the sand depends on what and why. I like to see a character overcome something that’s limiting them, but I hate watching them make bad choices. Sometimes they have to early on, but I remember one book by a best-selling author where the character just went farther and farther downhill. I have no idea if he turned himself around in the end, because I was long gone by then.
    Janet Sketchley recently posted…Take Flight Progressive Interview

    • says

      Thanks, Janet. I had the opportunity to take a fiction intensive class with Brandilyn Collins and that book was the text. Very funny lady.
      I think that there are a lot of different books for different kinds of readers. I would say that the author failed to make you care about that character in that particular case. I’m going to blog about raising the stakes next week.

  3. says

    I think I might be closer to Janet on this one. I like to see lines pushed and crossed to a certain extent, but after a while, I lose respect for a character who violates all their “I will nevers.” As writers, I think we also have to consider what message we’re sending to our readers. Is crossing all those lines for “the greater good” really the right thing to do, or should some lines never be crossed, no matter the cost? When making the choices in how we push our characters, I think we have to always be aware of the bigger message we’re sending and whether we want to send it rather than just whether it ups the entertainment value.
    Marcy Kennedy recently posted…7 Tips for Increasing Creativity

    • says

      No, I agree. I think the ‘I will nevers’ are a great opportunity for conflict. To challenge those boundaries, really make the character think through why they have those lines in the sand – self-examination. There are lines we won’t cross, but at what cost? And if we do cross them, what are the personal, emotional, social consequences? What I don’t like are the novels where the character’s line in the sand is hard to relate to – I will never tell a lie – I will never get angry – I will never look at another woman. Everyone struggles. Everyone makes bad choices in the heat of the moment from time to time.

      • says

        Conflict, yes, and letting the character discover his/her lines in the sand and why/how much they matter. I’ve been thinking about the lines themselves, though, and for me, crossing certain lines is positive, growth and healing (eg I will never show weakness by asking for help) where crossing others is defeat and perhaps even degradation. If the latter happens early I can enjoy reading about how the character rebuilds, and if the former happens near the end of the book it’s a key part of a satisfying ending.
        Janet Sketchley recently posted…Take Flight Progressive Interview


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