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The Mundane and the Fantastic (Together at Last)

Phil Olsen is currently 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 4: 'The Artifice Story', 6 April 2016

Having previously looked at tales with a twist (Epical Stories) and open-ended slices of life (Lyrical Stories), this month we were exploring Artifice Stories – playground of the absurdist. Unlike the epical story where a surprise reveal often comes towards the end, the artifice story shows its hand early on. Something unusual or fantastic will be introduced in the first paragraph so the reader can spend the rest of the story witnessing the characters in their attempts to deal with it (or perhaps in their efforts to ignore it). The most famous example would have to be Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (though at 21,000 words, technically speaking, it’s more of a novella than a short story… But hey, I’m not going to be the one to shove Kafka’s manuscript into his chest and send him on his way).

In Metamorphosis we get thrown into the strangeness right from the opening line:

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

What really makes the artifice story work is that everything else is normal and humdrum. If there were several fantastic elements, or if everything was strange in this world, then we’d be in fairy tale territory or fantasy fiction. Here it is the clashing of components that intrigues the reader; the merging of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The mundane and the fantastic, together at last.

The fact that there’s just one bizarre aspect helps us suspend our disbelief. The rest of the world is close enough to our own, with its logic and rules; with its train connections to make and its debts to pay off. Gregor Samsa doesn’t spend his time trying to figure out how or why he’s been transformed into an oversized bug, but rather on trying to figure out how he is going to get to work. He mostly accepts his metamorphosis as a mere inconvenience and strives to crack on with his day. 

We also looked at ‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar, in which the protagonist becomes an axolotl (that’s hardly a spoiler, as we get the line ‘Now I am an axolotl’ at the end of the first five-line paragraph) and we discussed Adam Marek’s short stories that deftly blend absurd adventure with real life problems.

The workshop run by Sarah Schofield also included a feedback session on the stories the group had produced since last month, and an in-class writing exercise. Last month’s feedback told me it wasn’t quite clear how old my protagonist was, and this month I realised I hadn’t got across when my story was set. There’s certainly something to be said for getting the fundamentals established in the first couple of paragraphs.

This month’s writing task involved making two lists – one consisting of strange things (a highlight example was a tap being turned and the sound of a crying baby coming out instead of water) and one consisting of dull things (such as renewing a rail pass). Once the lists were compiled we each picked an ‘odd couple’, ready to inspire an artifice story. Now we just need to wait for an overnight transformation.

Some artifice stories are available to read online for free, including a couple of the tales mentioned in this blog.

  • Julio Cortázar’s ‘Axolotl’

  • Claire Dean’s ‘Feather Girls’

  • Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’,164,0,0,1,0

  • Adam Marek’s ‘The Stormchasers’


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