Be Brave: Experimenting with Form

Our piece for this week is Be Brave by Kaitlyn Schaefer, which is a short story from Periphery 57. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

Today, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite Periphery pieces of all time: Be Brave. The main reason that I’m so fond of this work—aside from its fantastic use of narrative pacing—is its unique use of form. Like most short stories, Be Brave contains a condensed form of the “standard” narrative progression—hook, rising action, climax, etc. However, unlike most short stories, Be Brave takes on the structure of a series of dictionary definitions. Not only is this form interesting in its novelty, but it also works with the story’s plot, theme, and narration to add depth to the piece.

First of all, the direct nature of the form contrasts sharply with the fantastical and emotional elements of the story. Consider, for example, the following passage:

“4. Blanket magic does not exist. Teddy bear armies have proven to be effective methods of keeping creepy crawly boogeymen at bay. Pull childhood stuffed animals from your closet. Arrange them around her room as a surprise. She will be delighted and carry your favorite (Miss Struddle) everywhere.”

Given that the passage is a discussion of “teddy bear armies” and “creepy crawly boogeymen,” its subject matter is clearly silly and lighthearted. However, the passage’s imperative commands (“arrange them around her room as a surprise”) and its classification as a definition of the phrase “be brave” add an undercurrent of seriousness to the passage. This, in turn, subtly prepares readers for the horror elements that appear in the latter half of the piece.

In addition to foreshadowing the shift in tone that occurs in the second half of the work, the dictionary-style structure also capitalizes upon the meaning of piece’s title. If this piece were structured as a “normal” short story, then the title “Be Brave” might still fit, but it would be much less influential, as it would not be tied so thoroughly into the story. However, by structuring the story as a list of definitions of the term “be brave,” the author shapes the command into an undercurrent that runs throughout the story. Not only does this help the story flow more smoothly, but it also adds to the sense of fear and anticipation that lurks in the narrative’s background.

Finally, the structure of this work allows the author to incorporate time skips without it feeling forced or unnatural. If this piece followed the typical short story structure, then it would need to expend several paragraphs ensuring that the transitions between scenes are smooth and logical. The dictionary structure, however, eliminates this need. Because definitions are timeless and independent yet connected, we’re willing to follow the connections between this piece’s “definitions” without craving extra context. Thus, the piece’s form allows it to do more work with fewer words.

Overall, the unique structure of this piece adds a great deal to the story’s depth and draw. Not only does it help foreshadow narrative tone shifts, but it also thoroughly connects the title to the rest of the piece and allows the author to jump between scenes without making the narrative feel disjointed. Form has a huge effect on writing, and experimenting with a piece’s structure can lead to fantastic results if done well. So, the next time you’re feeling the effects of writer’s block, consider switching up your piece’s form. Perhaps your poem will work better as a Buzzfeed article or your short story will make a compelling letter—the only way to find out is to try it!

Hearts in Our Hands: On Wordplay

Our piece for this week is Hearts in Our Hands by Alexis Pearson, which is a poem from Periphery 56. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

Aside from certain flash fiction pieces, poems are the shortest literary works. As such, diction is an incredibly important tool for poets to master—when you only have a few stanzas to share your message, it’s essential to use the right words for the job. Our featured piece for this week, Hearts in Our Hands by Alexis Pearson, is an excellent example of how well-chosen words can amplify and twist the meanings within a poem.

First of all, the title itself has two separate meanings, both of which relate directly to the rest of the poem. Typically, “holding someone’s heart in your hand” is used as a metaphor for being the recipient of someone’s undying love.  Therefore, the poem’s title hints at the unspoken—and likely unrequited—love that the narrator holds towards their card-playing partner. Even if she doesn’t know it, she holds the narrator’s heart in her hands. Furthermore,  because “hearts” is a suit of cards, this title also refers to the cards that the narrator and their friend physically hold in their hands. Thus, the wording of the poem’s title establishes the intertwinement of cards, love, and hidden meaning that characterizes the rest of the piece.

Unsurprisingly, the body of the poem is also rife with puns and plays on words. Perhaps my favorite instance of clever word choice comes from the first five lines:

“We play cards in the dark naked

and call it love making,

well I call it love and you

call it Friday night and

they call it poker”

This section stands out to me because of the sheer amount of meaning place upon the term “love making.” There is, of course, the typical definition of lovemaking, which is introduced by the concept of the friends being naked together and is further highlighted by the inclusion of the term itself. However, the passage makes it clear that physical lovemaking is not happening—just metaphorical lovemaking, in the form of two people sharing an intimate activity.

Additionally, the third line splits the term into its two root words but only writes out the first—“love.” When a term in a poem is split like this, readers expect both halves to appear in different contexts than those surrounding the original term. By subverting this expectation and discussing “Friday night” instead of the idea of “making,” the poem causes us to associate the concepts with each other. Thus, we can gather that the narrator’s Friday night routine is responsible for “making” them fall in “love” with their friend. Physical lovemaking may not be occurring, but metaphorical lovemaking is, and it’s making the narrator fall further in love with their poker partner.

 Other examples of powerful wordplay in this piece include the usage of homophonic phrases (e.g. poker/poke her) and the narrator’s statement that the flush of hearts is “ironic, no?” Hearts in Our Hands is a very brief piece, but by taking advantage of words with multiple meanings, it manages to convey a great deal of complexity and emotion. Therefore, this poem shows that good diction is a vital tool for both poets and writers in general.

Firefly Eyes: Voice and Subtext

Our piece for this week is Firefly Eyes by Peter Ripple, which is a short story from Periphery 50. This piece can be found in Periphery’s online archives.

One of my biggest pet peeves is authors giving their child characters adult voices. While it’s true that some children have excellent vocabularies,  an eight-year-old narrator using words like “effervescent” will immediately destroy my suspension of disbelief in a story. It’s simply too unrealistic for me to cope with—plus, as a huge fan of middle grade literature, it grates on my nerves.

Fortunately, Firefly Eyes presents us with a young narrator who has a thoroughly childlike voice. This short story follows Liam, a boy who is “younger than most princesses,” as he deals with his mother’s drug addiction, his father’s violent tendencies, and his father’s death—all within a few brief hours. Yet even as the story forces Liam to confront “adult” problems, it ensures that he maintains a childlike voice. For example, when Liam’s father curses at his mother, Liam mis-perceives the word as “forking.” Additionally, whereas a narrator with an adult voice might use various words to describe their emotions in a similar scenario, Liam repeatedly uses the words “angry,” “sad,” and “scared.” This simplistic description of emotions solidifies the idea that Liam is a young child—even though the story itself was written by an adult.

In addition to making the story more immersive, this deliberate use of a childlike voice offers plenty of opportunities for subtext, which adds intrigue and suspense to the story. Consider, for example, the following passage:

“’Now write the letters I tell you, just like how we…used to,’ she said. She started to breathe real fast and it sounded like a fan that blew air that was real cold. She kept looking at me and then at the door and then at me again.

‘Ok,’ I said and then I took the cap off the pen and I kneeled on the ground so I could use the table by her bed.

‘P, for puppy. A, for apple. I…errr…for igloo. N, for Nintendo. T, for tail. Another T…errr…H, for hamburger. I, for igloo. Two Ns, for Nintendo. E, for elephant. R, for red,” she said to me.

I wrote down the letters as good as I ever have and I held them up to Mom and I said, ‘look how good they are!’

She said, ‘good. That’s good,’ and then she breathed fast again.  

‘Now you go to the shed and bring this bookmark with you. You find the can that has this on it, ok?’ she said.”

Because Liam cannot spell, he has no idea that his mother is asking him to bring her paint thinner (presumably to drink). But as readers, we know exactly what is going on, and must therefore watch in horror as the oblivious Liam brings his mother poison, knowing that nothing we say or do can change the characters’ actions. Thus, through the use of a childish voice and perspective, Firefly Eyes draws us in and challenges us to keep reading.

All too often, I’ve heard people dismiss children’s stories, claiming that they’re irrelevant to “great modern literature.” However, as Firefly Eyes demonstrates, a well-executed childlike voice can add a lot to even an “adult” story. So, if you’ve got a young character who you’ve been keeping on your story’s sidelines, maybe it’s time to let their perspective shine.