What Can We Steal From Sarah Clayville’s “Seeming is Believing”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Seeming is Believing,” short story
Author: Sarah Clayville
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in StoryChord, a very cool journal that presents short stories along with a complementary work of art and piece of music.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses: Here is a story Ms. Clayville published in Literary OrphansHere are a couple stories she published in Toasted Cheese.  And here is a piece she published in The Bookends Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Secrets

Discussion:
It’s the day of the wedding.  The story begins as Mia adjusts her veil and thinks about the pending nuptials.  The love between Mia and Evan is somewhat complicated; Mia’s sister urges her not to even go to the church.  A perfectly understandable sentiment; as Evan has been cheating.  Mia, bound into her white dress, hops in a cab and heads to the church.  An odd move, to be sure, but Mia knows her love is somewhat odd.  She enters the church and creates an understandable buzz.

Here we go.  Ms. Clayville was influenced by O. Henry, so if you haven’t read the story, just read the story.

Did you read it?  Why not?  The story’s only 1,500 words long.  Just read it.

Okay, good.  The O.Henry/Rod Serling twist at the end of the piece is the revelation that Mia is the mistress, not the bride.  Mia has crashed the wedding, ostensibly causing a big, noisy, crazy scene.  One thing I love about the piece is that Ms. Clayville understands how long the story should be.  Her goal (it seems to me) was to deliver the punch of the twist.  The setup she provides can’t bear the weight of much more story than she has presented, so she made the right choices with respect to structure.  Think about O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”  The story is not complicated.  A poor husband has an expensive watch.  His poor wife has beautiful hair.  He sells the watch to buy her a tortoise shell comb and she sells her hair to buy a fob chain for the watch.  Like “Seeming is Believing,” the idea is cool, but it just won’t support the weight of hundreds of pages on its own.

The same goes for The Twilight Zone.  The show was originally produced in the half-hour format; then the show became an hour-long in the fourth season.  While the show was still good, the programs don’t quite pack the same wallop.  Why?  Because the half-hour shows feature twenty minutes of breathless setup, a minute or two of twist and another minute or two for the characters to wallow in their new misery.  At some points in the fourth season, you can see the writers shoehorning in subplots and diverging from the overall idea in an effort to fill time.  Those early shows, of course, boast scripts packed with scenes that serve the idea and inexorably move the plot along.  (It should also be pointed out that Serling returned the length of the show to thirty minutes in its fifth (and final) season.)

I also admire the way Ms. Clayville makes the twist VERY clear:

This isn’t Mia’s wedding day, because mistresses don’t get them.

The beginning of the story is a little ambiguous (all the better to hide the twist), but there is NO DOUBT about the story upon the reveal.  It’s okay to mess with your audience in this way…we love finding out that reality is different than we thought.  (Particularly when we have that experience in fiction and not reality.)  Once the switch has been made, however, all ambiguity must be abandoned.

Check out the equivalent passage from “The Gift of the Magi.”  The husband, having just sold his watch, returns with the beautiful combs for his beautiful wife’s flowing hair:

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience upon reading a suspense story; you finish the work and think, “wait…what happened?”  O. Henry (and Ms. Clayville) make their conceit completely clear once the reveal has been made.

What Should We Steal?

  • Balance the length of your piece with the “punch” of your idea.  Victor Hugo set out to tell the story of the political struggles of early nineteenth-century France through the experiences of a number of interconnected characters.  He needed hundreds of pages.  If you’re writing a story whose primary point is the cool twist, you probably don’t need to buy several reams of paper.
  • Be very clear (and perhaps a little obvious) once you reveal the twists in your story.  Writing is often about understanding when it’s time to stop keeping secrets.

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