What Can We Steal From Liz N. Clift’s “The Breaking-Up Game”
Title of Work and its Form: “The Breaking-Up Game,” short story
Author: Liz N. Clift (On Twitter: @NWBorealiz)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The…short story? Yes, the short story was published by the literary journal Booth. You can find the piece right here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
No matter how much we want to fight against the inevitability, we will all endure many break-ups during our lives. (With a divorce rate of fifty-plus percent, the specter of breaking up even hangs over married folks.) Ms. Clift tells the long, sad process of the break-up in an unconventional manner: she appropriates the form of the board game rule sheet. After establishing the players and their suitable ages, Ms. Clift describes the gradual alienation and increasing apathy that blossoms in the break-upper. In the end, the reader/player fails to make a decision, leaving the actual breakup for “Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Next month. Soon.”
Ms. Clift (I’m guessing) went to her closet and took down her copy of Monopoly or Yahtzee or Candy Land and simply followed the structure of the rule sheet included with each game. Players, then Ages, then Rules & Setup and so on. I’ve done the same exact thing a few times. One of my stories is formatted as a scholarly research paper; another is in the form of an end-of-class evaluation. What does Ms. Clift gain with her structure?
- Familiarity. We’ve all played a board game and can ease into her “experiment” more easily because of it.
- Built-in Conclusion. The form dictates that the story will end relatively quickly. Therefore, Ms. Clift was forced (in a good way) to make her story potent.
- Safe Experimentation. Ms. Clift is able to do something “new” and “crazy,” but doesn’t leave her audience behind. Borrowing a structure in this manner allows you to hold your reader’s hand as you guide them through a “different” form.
- Backdoor Second-Person. Ms. Clift puts YOU, the reader, in the position of the “Primary Player.”
I want to talk about that last point a little more. The second person is powerful, particularly because it is great for immersing your reader in the mind of your protagonist. The “board game rules” format is, by definition, in a kind of second person because YOU are being told what YOU need to do as YOU play the game. Ms. Clift made a particularly felicitous choice in structure because a break-up is very much a situation in which one person has more knowledge than the other folks who are involved. Ms. Clift understands this; her first sentence points out that at least one of the players in “The Breaking-Up Game” should be “unaware that s/he is playing.”
There is humor in the story, even though it is about lovers who are parting. Toward the beginning of the piece, she informs the player that his or her Significant Other (SO) “should be long distance and wildly different from you.” She lists some examples:
|You or Significant Other||Significant Other or You|
|Atheistic and/or religiously confused||Devout, evangelical Christian|
|Pro-social justice||Hates any sort of welfare|
Ms. Clift is dealing with a situation that is inherently sad in which people simply must act in ways that are unpleasant. Thankfully, she keeps the tone of the story somewhat light; a choice that is particularly appropriate considering that “YOU” are the protagonist.
What Should We Steal?
- Overwrite a document in an established form. Whether or not you realize it, the user’s manual for a car is a kind of story. So is that memo your boss sent you telling you and your co-workers are no longer allowed to tool around the office on a riding mower. Create an unexpected story in the form of a document.
- Choose an “experimental structure” that suits your intent. A police report requires declarative sentences and enjoins the writer to include details without poetic flourish. A passive-aggressive note to roommates requires the writer to write in a much more emotional style.
- Find the dark humor in sad situations. Break-ups are sad, but lots of humor is present…especially if you’re not involved.