Week 1 Report: What are Linked Stories?

This was the first class of the semester, so in addition to getting to know each other better, we dipped our toes into the semester’s topic: Linked Stories. What are they?

What we read for class:

·        Poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology

·        Narrative Theory: David Jausss, “Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection”

·        Cathy Day, “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” The Millions

Linked Stories go by many names (story cycle, novel in stories). They aren’t a hard and fast category so much as a type of book that occupies the middle of the spectrum between “collection” and “novel.”

The theme of the class is “Diptychs and Triptychs.” Everyone in the class will workshop a manuscript of linked stories at the end of the term.

We studied some linked paintings and photographs in order to generate ideas about how to link stories.

Takeways from Presentation:

Lots of definitions

  • Perhaps the linked book is one in which the author has recognized and heightened the intrinsic relationships embedded in the individual stories so that our pattern-making abilities as readers might be stimulated into action.
  • Forrest Ingram’s 1971 definition: “A short story cycle [is] a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts.”
  • Robert M. Luscher, 1989:  “A volume of stories, collected and organized by their author, in which the reader successively realizes underlying patterns of coherence by continual modifications of his perceptions of pattern and theme.” “Within the context of the sequence, each short story is thus not a completely closed formal experience…The volume as a whole becomes an open book, inviting the reader to construct a network of associations that binds the stories together and lends them cumulative thematic impact…our pattern making faculties bristle with attention when we detect a loose unity, and we seek to pull together material that might seem at first to be disparate.”
  • Dunn and Morris, 1995: “The composite novel is a literary unit composed of shorter texts that—though individually complete and autonomous—are interrelated in a coherent whole according to one or more organizing principles.”

2013-08-21 16.22.43Learning Activity:

At the end of class, students formed two groups. I gave them the first 40 or so poems from Spoon River Anthology (unlinked) and asked them to link them, to put them into whatever order made sense to them. This provided a chance for us to talk about the effect that one order has over another order.

The David Jauss’s article gave us a vocabulary for discussing linked fiction.

Takeaways from the Jauss article:

  • “I’d read a lot of story collections in my life, but in a way, I realized, I hadn’t read more than a few. I’d read the stories, sure, but I hadn’t read the books.”

  • A story is a discrete thing, unity unto itself, it is also true that the presence of the neighbors changes it.

  • If a collection is well constructed, reading the stories out of sequence is like listening to the movements of a symphony out of order.

  • Robert Frost: “If you have a book of twenty four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth poem.”

  • Jauss says he’s talking about collections, not talking about “novels in stories,” but WE ARE.

Jauss’s vocabulary for “Unifying Techniques”


key word or image whose repetition links two seemingly divergent scenes in a play and reveals their underlying connection and unity. Words and images and actions in a story collection perform the same function.

Do their work subliminally, and often the writer wasn’t aware of them either. Occur naturally b/c they’re a product of a writer’s obsessive concerns. “Totem” words and images.

Can link adjacent stories or farther apart (muted).


“Liaison on steroids”

When a liaison appears throughout a work, not just in adjacent stories, it becomes a motif. Extended or expanded liaisons.

Recurring Characters, Settings, and Subject Matter:

Like motifs, only more noticeable. Andrea Barrett: “Each time a character reappears, doors open between stories, enlarging the view.”

Winesburg, Ohio, Things They Carried, etc. This technique takes you toward greater unity, more toward “novel” territory.


Stories that have a similar structural technique or “compositional pattern,” such as two or three stories with male narrators who lose a woman, etc.

Sometimes, unless the stories are side by side, we don’t notice the parallels.

Contrasts and Mirrors:

A parallel builds on the reader’s emotion or experience. A contrast reverses or complicates it. Like mirror images, a kind of opposite.

A good example: in The Things They Carried: back to back stories “Friends” and “Enemies”


Renassiance triptych: Panel 1, then you get Panel 2, which seems unrelated, then you get Panel 3, a frame of #1

Framing a collection with two stories that parallel each other conveys a sense that all the stories are related and provides symmetry, a sense that we’ve come full circle.

Gives a sense of closure. Common structural technique in story collections

Jauss’s ideas on “Structural Principles”

How to order a collection!

Aesthetic Quality

Best story first. Weakest stories in the middle. Great one to stick the landing.

1, 3, 5, 7, 6, 4, 2

This principle doesn’t lend itself to unity.


Contrast, difference in length, tone, style, point of view, gender, time, setting, subject matter, etc.

Also doesn’t lend itself to unity.

Order of Composition

Order in which you wrote the stories might present clues about the connections you had in mind.


“Variations on a theme.”

Can also have narrative arc and structure.


Placing them in the order in which the events occur is an effective way to to give disparate stories a sense of unity.

Most resembles a novel’s structure.


  • Mirror–two halves of the collection mirror each other. Cloud Atlas.
  • Double Sestina
  • The Ring–Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, throughout the collection, a minor or incidental character in one story reappears as the protagonist in another.
  • The Mobius Strip–no beginning and end, a kind of ring.
  • The Hourglass–characters/themes gradually change and then reverse for the second half of the book. Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
  • The Mosaic–fragmentary, discontinuous, seem unrelated until eventually the reader is able to assemble them and the whole picture comes together.
  • Musical Improvisation–a chord, then improvisation, then return to the chord.
  • Instant replay–retelling, like Things They Carried
  • Mimesis
  • Form of the book imitates its theme. Such as the Things They Carried.

Next Week

The topic is “Turning Stories into a Novel.” The stories are those by Raymond Carver, and the “novel” is the movie Short Cuts.


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