What Can We Steal From Charles Baxter’s “Bravery”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Bravery,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Winter 2012 issue of Tin House and was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2013.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Baxter gave to BookslutHere is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Mr. Baxter is the author of Burning Down the House, a fantastic book about writing craft.  (Well, Graywolf only publishes fantastic books.)  Mr. Baxter discusses the book in this interview with The Atlantic.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: White Space

Discussion:
This is, in a way, the story of Susan’s coming of age.  We meet the young woman as a teenager who, unlike her friends, is attracted to men who are, above all, kind.  Susan affirms her interest in college and finally meets Elijah, a pediatrician who devotes his time to caring for others.  Before long, the two are married and on honeymoon in Prague.  On one eventful day, the pair walks through a chapel whose walls are filled with carved babies.  An omen?  Then the pair are verbally accosted by a woman who shouts at them in angry Czech.  An omen?  Then Susan is grazed by a tram.  An omen?  These must have been omens, as Susan immediately finds herself pregnant.  The last scene of the story finds Elijah feeding the baby.  Susan insists he stop, whereupon Elijah goes on a walk that results in a thematically relevant experience.

There are a lot of eternal struggles for those who take up the challenge of storytelling.  One of them is how to use white space and their asterisky cousin: the section break.  When should we use white space?  Unfortunately, there’s no absolute right answer.  Like any other choice, white space creates an effect and it’s our job to decide if we’re creating the proper effect.  Mr. Baxter uses white space in “Bravery” for many of the common reasons:

  • To jump ahead in time.
  • To emphasize a single image or experience. (Susan’s tree dream.)
  • To afford him the chance to get in a cool end-of-section “punch.”
  • To allow that “punch” to land and to reverberate in the reader’s mind.
  • To control how fast the reader reads the story and the path of his or her eyes.

Mr. Baxter uses two asterisk section breaks in the story:

  1. After Susan and Elijah have met and Susan reflects upon his kindness.
  2. After the significant day in Prague; Susan–though she is unaware–is about to be pregnant, and her dream confirms much of what she believes about her “destiny.”

If you’re anything like me, you are wondering why Mr. Baxter put the section breaks where he did.  The first section break seems to have the following effect:

  • Mr. Baxter spends the first few pages running through a wide swath of Susan’s life.  The asterisk lets us know that the narrator is going to slow down and that the next few pages will zoom in on a very brief period of time.
  • Mr. Baxter seems to be whispering, “Okay, friend.  I’m done shooting tons of exposition at you!  Now that you know the basics, let’s go deeper into Susan’s thoughts and experiences!”
  • The transition itself mirrors the journey being taken by the characters.  Susan and Elijah are on a plane.  This is down time.  The couple left terra firma in one place and their lives resume in another.  The story functions the same way.  (The asterisk is an airplane in a way.)

The second section break functions thus:

  • Mr. Baxter marks Susan’s transition from childlessness to parenthood.
  • Mr. Baxter zooms ahead in time from one significant scene to another.
  • Mr. Baxter switches between abstract poeticism and efficient exposition.  (“They named their son Raphael…”)

So how should we use white space and section breaks?  Sigh…there’s no easy answer.  We just need to follow Mr. Baxter’s lead and make sure that our choices have the desired effect in our readers.

Another concept with which we always wrestle is the personality of our narrators.  “Bravery” has a pretty straightforward third person limited to Susan’s perspective.  There’s nothing wrong with the narrator; it’s your tried-and-true reporter.  I did find significance in a sentence that arrives a few pages into the story:

He handed her a monogrammed handkerchief that he had pulled out of some pocket or other, and the first letter on it was E, so he probably was an Elijah, after all.  A monogrammed handkerchief!  Maybe he had money.  “Here,” he said.  “Go ahead.  Sop it up.”

The bolded sentence is significant to me because it sounded as though the narrator was speaking in a different register.  The sentiment seems to suggest a lot about Susan because it’s buried in the middle of “normal” stuff.  Think of it this way.  Let’s say you ask your significant other how his or her day was and you hear the following:

“Eh, just a normal day.  I went to the post office, then I picked up some dog food.  I was a couple minutes late to work, but it was okay.  I had leftovers for lunch.  I ran into my celebrity crush and we went on a long walk alone in the woods.  I forgot to get gas on the way home, so I have to do that tomorrow morning.  That’s about it.”

I’ll bet I know which part of that list you’ll ask more about!  The extraordinary (in this case suspicious) sentence stood out among the rest.  “Maybe he had money” stood out for me because it seemed different from the narrator’s other thoughts and shaped how I understood Susan to some small extent.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ white space and section breaks to create the desired effect in your reader.  Most readers aren’t going to mark up your stories with a pen and wonder why you did what you did.  They are going to absorb these breaks subconsciously.
  • Spice up your narrator as carefully as a chef spices a dish.  If your narrator is that traditional laid back third person limited, you probably shouldn’t jazz things up TOO much.  But a little bit of jazz?  That can make your story pop.

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