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Twisted tales and tilted heads

Phil Olsen is studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Phil will be guest blogging for Bluecoat throughout our Comma Press Short Story course. 

Comma Press short story course - Workshop 2: 'The Epical Story', 3 February 2016

After last month’s introduction to the short story, this second workshop delved more specifically into one of the three main short story types – Epical Stories. These are traditionally tales with a twist, where key information is saved for a reveal towards the end.

Sarah Schofield, our teacher for the six months, began the session standing beside a projection of a pencil crayon frog. The group was invited to “Say what you see”, as Roy Walker would put it, and much 3D-magic-eye squinting around the table ensued. It turned out we’d been cunningly misdirected… We’d naively been taking the image at face value and staring at the frog straight on. Then, as though it had been choreographed, our heads all fell to our right shoulders and we suddenly saw that the frog was also a horse – well, the head of a horse – when viewed side-on. Like Jack Woltz waking up in The Godfather, the horse’s head came as something of a surprise. And once seen it could not be unseen.

A couple of examples of traditional epical stories are Arthur Conan Doyle’s The ‘Adventure of the Speckled Band’ and Hilary Mantel’s ‘Winter Break’. Each had their fans within the group but the latter came out as more popular when we untilted our heads and gave a show of hands. For me, Sherlock was just a tad too smug with his explanations. The beauty of the revelation is that it makes you go back and reassess everything that led up to that moment. The clues were all there, in amongst the beautifully described distractions. Newly illuminated, everything has now changed for the reader.

We also looked at modern epical short stories where instead of a plot twist at the end we get an epiphany – the penny drops for our protagonist and an internal transformation takes place. The examples we looked at here were Alice Walker’s very short story ‘The Flowers’ and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ‘Permanent Granite Sunrise’ which is set around the construction of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. With both of these, by the time they reach their conclusion (whether downbeat and disillusioned or uplifting and enlightened), everything has changed for the character.

This second workshop was also an opportunity to give each other feedback on our own first draft efforts that we’d been working on in January. For the critiques we split into smaller groups and while our own piece was being commented on we were not permitted to speak. No defending or explaining and absolutely no apologising – we just had to listen and take notes. If something didn’t quite work on the page for our peers then chances are it would need addressing in draft two. I’ll certainly be making sure the dog in my story doesn’t change sex mid-walkies when I revisit it.

Next month we’re going to be looking at lyrical short stories – those with less definitive endings.


Some of the short stories mentioned in this blog are available to read online for free.


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