New Scholarship on the Linked Stories Form

jenny-smithFirst, an anecdote.

I “met” Jenny Smith when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and she was a graduate student at Indiana University. She’d decided to write her dissertation on short-story cycle/linked stories/novel-in-stories form, and one of her classmates at IU, Pat Maley said, “You should read The Circus in Winter.”

Pat, you see, had been one of my students at The College of New Jersey, which is where I taught before Pitt.

When I heard that someone from Indiana was writing her dissertation on the linked stories form, I got really excited. I agreed to be interviewed by her. “So, you went to Ball State?” I said. “My brother went there.”

At the time, I had no idea that the book would be adapted into a musical by Ball State students, nor that I’d later end up teaching there.

Time passed. Periodically, I wondered, “Whatever happened to that person who was writing her dissertation on the short story cycle?”

And then today, I took a good look at a recent post on our department’s blog. It went up last week, but I hadn’t read it yet. Jenny Smith? Why is that name so familiar. Then I got to the end of the post. Oh! It’s her.

Jenny teaches at Concordia University in Chicago and her book Provisional Identities: The American Short-Story Cycle will be out soon with Rodopi. Hooray!

Here is her dissertation, “One Story, Many Voice: Problems of Unity in the Modern Short Story Cycle.”

And here is her article from TriQuarterly, “Born in the Workshop: The MFA and the Short Story Cycle.”

Thank you, Dr. Smith, for doing this work.

And thank you universe for bringing her to my little book.

[This is a crosspost between #iamlinking and The Big Thing.]


Week 6: Chapters VS Stories: Part 2

Ashley Mack Jackson breaks down our Linked Stories class on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.




I am pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at Ball State University (BSU). This is my first semester at BSU and I have the pleasure of being in Cathy Day’s Fiction: Linked Stories class. Each week one student is responsible for covering the class for the class blog. This week I’m up! You can access our class blog at and follow our progress throughout the semester.


Fiction: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Narrative Theory: “What Makes a Short Story Short” by Norman Friedman & “The Nightmare of Resonance: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” by James Nagel.


This week the class was divided into two groups, and we continued our conversation on the difference between chapters and short stories. Group A’s job was to identify diptychs (complete narratives made up of two stories)…

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Week 5: Chapters vs. Stories, Part 1

This week, Robbie Maakestad talks about how we took about Winesburg, Ohio and put it back together again.

Essaying the Essay

This semester I have the privilege of being in Cathy Day’s Linked Fiction class.  She has asked each student to cover one week of class and post about it on our class blog which can be accessed here:

In Week 4, Kate covered our second week of examining how a novel can be divided up into stories.


Fiction: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonWinesburg, Ohio

Narrative Theory: “What Makes a Short Story Short?” by Norman Friedman

Narrative Theory: Chapter 2, “Winesburg, Ohio,” of The Short Story Cycle by Susan Garland Mann


Before reading Winesburg, Ohio our class split into two groups, each assigned a different reading lens: Group A was to read the book and consider ways to make Anderson’s work less like a novel, while Group B was to consider ways to make the book more like…

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Week 3: How You Can Turn a Novel into Stories

This week, we extracted stories/subplots from a novel. I wanted my students to see that if they can write stories, they can write a novel, too! And I wanted to talk about the 117 vignettes of Mrs. Bridge as “linked stories.” Kelsey Englert weighs in.


This is a blog post for Cathy Day’s Linked Fiction course at Ball State University.

You can follow along with the course at:

In the third week of the semester, we analyzed how through lines in novels can be extrapolated and merged into short stories.

What We Read for Class

Fiction: Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

Essay: “Novels into Stories, Stories into Novels” from Cathy Day’s blog, The Big Thing

To prepare for this class, while reading Mrs. Bridge, we were to generate a list of subplots, layers, characters, or through lines. This fueled our discussion of the techniques Connell used to link his novel together.

Learning Activity

We presented the lists we generated, and then discussed the following questions:

Which characters foil other characters?

What are the book’s subplots?

What if the stories had been told from different points of view?  Or if each story…

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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.

Seeing the Links

A web of connections. Photo by Cody Lumpkin

A web of connections. Photo by Cody Lumpkin

Last night, one of my Facebook friends, Cody Lumpkin, posted this photo, an illustration of the “web narrative” of Winesburg, Ohio. His students in ENG 303 at University of Nebraska-Lincoln made connections between the last nine stories, and literally filled the board. He was kind enough to let me post it here.

It made me think of the way that my student Kat Greene used Prezi to illustrate Winesburg.

It also made me think of the chart Jack Black’s character in School of Rock drew on the board to illustrate the history of rock and roll. 

A web of connections and influences



Learning from Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine

What my well-worn copy looks like. 

In 2011, I was on an AWP panel on Linked Stories with Anne Sanow, Cliff Garstang, and Dylan Landis. To prepare her thoughts, Dylan Landis wrote a blog post about Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, a book that taught her much about the form. 

Me, too.

I’m really happy she expanded and published those thoughts in TriQuarterly Online so that others can learn from her efforts. It’s called “Paper Chains and Lace: Lessons on Linked Stories from Love Medicine.” 

Whether you’re writing linked stories or trying to teach your students to write them, this is a fabulous read. 

Embracing the Chain Links: Finding Writing Freedom in Linked Stories

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Linked stories are nothing new to me. I first encountered the concept straight out of high school with films like Pulp Fiction and Kevin Smith’s New Jersey movies. While my writing at the time was highly influenced by David Lynch, I’d always sneak some character or reference to a situation from a previous story into the muddled weirdness I was currently working on.

Linking fiction is something I’ve continued to play with. In 2010, inspired by Amelia Gray’s stellar collection of linked flash fiction, AM/PM, I tried to imitate her writing strategies in my own flash fiction, tried to find connections in my work where a character or a plot point might pop up in multiple pieces.

So while the linked story collection is nothing new to me, the idea they could be used as a method of building a novel changed my writing life.

For the past few years I’ve stuck to journalism and nonfiction. It was easier to write a story that had already been acted out, that could be examined for beginning and end points and a meaning. Fiction, on the other hand, meant creating all that stuff from thin air. The thought of writing a ten-page fictional story had become daunting to me and to push that to several hundred pages for a novel was surely impossible.

But linked stories acted as building blocks. I no longer cowered at the thought of getting from scene to the next. I just focused on the moment I was writing. Each piece was its own special moment in time with no pressure to push the story further. If I wanted to stop I could stop and be satisfied with my work. But as I wrote more links in my project the more I grew to care about my characters, to want to see their world fleshed out. I could see how their problems began and how they would eventually come to a close. I realized I was no longer working on a series of linked stories but a potential novel.

As I shift gears and think about my project as a book, I still approach each segment as if I were writing linked stories. It makes things more manageable. If I have a tough day of writing I can end knowing I finished a section instead of thinking “my novel isn’t finished and I have to write more tomorrow.” The linked story has taught me writing is just one step, one moment, one story at a time.