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!

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