LOOK | Sarah Gailey.
Here’s the deal. If you read my commentary on Sarah Gailey’s “Look,” I will spoil the entire story for you. Every last detail.
I don’t want to do that. It’s not that her piece relies on plot twists, but it does make use of the element of surprise, and I don’t want to cheat you out of that essential effect (note the difference between a surprise and a plot twist: one is authentic and works every time; the other is manipulative and works only once–except in the case of any M. Night Shyamalan movie post-The Sixth Sense, in which case the plot twist works zero times). Anyway, go read Ms. Gailey’s great story over at Cease, Cows. Then come back and we’ll talk about just how this masterful short story works. Okay, go read the story via the above link. Be prepared to get a little creeped out.
And just to make sure you don’t glance down for a couple quick spoilers, I’m going to set up a buffer zone of adorable kittens to prevent you from sneaking any peaks of what’s to come.
When you’ve finished reading, you may scroll past my guard-kittens…
Have you read the story yet? Keep scrolling…
Now that you’ve read this story, and enjoyed my expertly curated selection of adorable cat photos from the internet, let’s talk about babies born with no eyeballs and live moths squirming around in their sealed-up eye sockets. Shall we?
This deceptively simple horror story works because it does a few essential things with absolute precision. Here are the aspects that really shine:
- the author’s ability to pace and parse out information over the course of the story.
- emotional pacing is taut and carefully nuanced throughout–no histrionics, no horror-show shrieking, despite the horrific nature of what we discover. The character’s numbed state and fuzzy consciousness aid this subdued sensation.
- subtle imagery–ambiguous language like “things” that allow images to transition into clarity like a blurry Polaroid flapped in the air; again, this fits well with the numb/shocked nature of the scene and character.
- characterization: tiny hints of backstory, little gestures to convey when a character (like the husband, the doctor, the nurses) are overwhelmed or helpless, speak volumes. These are epic characters, following an honorable horror story tradition, yet they are constructed through tiny, low-key gestures. This is some great flash fiction.
- The story’s POV distance manipulation is very effective: we’re always pretty deep inside Caroline’s mind, but the author adjusts the distance to clarify/obscure the scene’s goings-on and modulate the overall emotional intensity of her confusion or realizations.
Stories like this, I always wonder how they came about. Writers are a wonderfully diverse species, and the reason for that is at least partly because we all have very different writing processes. I don’t know if the author of “Look” started out with the idea that she wanted to write a story about a baby born with moths instead of eyeballs, or simply a baby born with no eyes, or if she simply set out with a goal of writing a story about childbirth, period. Whether from the beginning or not, it became apparent to the author that this would be a horrific story, and that the revelation of the baby’s “condition,” in order to be effective, would have to be delivered carefully, with a lot of psychological build-up.
Think of the story’s clincher, it’s big reveal, like a magic trick. A magic trick itself is just a stupid gimmick. Oh golly, you guessed my card correctly. Amazing… But a good magician is a storyteller, someone who frames the event with such care, who builds up to the pivotal moment with so much emotional power that the audience is basically compelled to view the moment as transcendent.
You would think storytellers would have the advantage when it comes to the climactic moment, since climaxes naturally occur at the end. But just because it happens at the end does not mean the climax of the story possesses the force it’s supposed to. If the climax of the story is the dynamite stick, the rising-action is the wick. Let’s take a quick look at the “wick” in Sarah Gailey’s “Look,” breaking down the narrative according to the key information that is revealed in each beat:
- The baby is born but something is wrong.
- It’s okay, he’s healthy, but Caroline can’t hold him right now.
- He has no eyes; they’re going to operate.
- There are no eyes beneath the skin.
- Here is a capsule full of moths. Guess where they came from?
And that’s how we get from point A to a very devastating point B. Notice that the distance isn’t that far: really, all of the information could have been conveyed to Caroline by the doctor in one sentence, but I don’t think this piece would have worked in a shorter form. As I said, the author slowed the pace of discovery just enough to keep the tension high throughout, and I think the flash form is perfect since it’s just the right length for a high-tension story such as this.