Alice Thomsen covered the class last week, and she has her own blog. Check out what she had to say about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad here.
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: https://iamlinking.wordpress.com/
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
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.
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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By Jennifer Banning
Last week we learned the definition of linked stories; this week, we tried to figure out just how, exactly, you might go about linking stories. Short stories are inherently different from novels—they aren’t long enough to let you enter the vivid, continuous fictional dream of a novel, nor are they plotted in the same way. So, to better understand how we might transform and link short stories into a novel, we took a look at Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts and Robert Altman’s film version.
What We Read (and watched):
- Raymond Carver, Short Cuts (stories)
- Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (film)
Short Cuts is a collection of nine stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. The book was actually compiled by Robert Altman and released to accompany his film by the same name. In their original form, Carver’s stories are all unconnected, seemingly disparate works; so in watching the film, we looked for the ways in which Altman was able to connect these stories.
Our class was divided into two groups: Group A watched the film first and then read the story collection; Group B read the book first and then watched the film. So—what was the purpose of that?
- Group A came to the film with no prior knowledge except that it was based on a book of short stories. We viewed the connections between the stories without judgment, and we even voiced the opinion that there should have been more connections—more character overlapping, more themes drawn through the whole movie.
- Group B came to the film having already read the book. They knew these stories were not originally about any of the same characters, and so the connections seemed forced at times.
Of course, the opinions were not unanimous or exclusive; Group A saw forced connections in the film, and Group B saw places where the connections worked well.
Part Two of the learning activity happened while we each watched the film.
- Group A took note of the characters in each scene.
- Group B took note of the source stories in each scene.
By looking over these lists, we were able to find the places where Robert Altman layered stories on top of one another, merged characters and storylines, etc.
We then drew a map on the board, with lines connecting the source stories. For example, Doreen the waitress is from Carver’s source story “They’re Not Your Husband,” but she also plays a critical role in Altman’s version of “A Small, Good Thing.” So we drew a line between those two stories with “Doreen” as the connector.
Takeaways from Presentation:
- There are several plotting devices you can use to transform stories into a novel.
- Many novels (and films) follow the restorative three-act structure, and this is what their plotlines look like:
- Act I
- Original stasis
- Catalyst/inciting incident
- “Doorway of No Return” for main character
- Act II
- Midpoint: changes momentum of story
- False victory: brief high point
- “All Seems Lost”: brief low point
- “Doorway of No Return” which throws main character towards climax
- Act III
- Act I
- In transforming Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter, a collection of short stories, into a musical, Ball State students decided to condense the clock of the story from one hundred years to just one. This is because novels, films, and plays often take place in “real time”—or at least a short, continuous span of time which allows us to enter the fictional dream of the work.
- Character arcs, throughlines, subplots, and plot layers can also help you turn stories into a novel.
- These devices are similar, in that they all help to pull the audience through the longer story.
- Weaving layers and subplots throughout your stories helps you to create nodes of conjunction or tighter plotting.
What I Learned:
We learned about several plotting devices you might need to make use of in order to transform a collection of stories into a novel. You might feel that using these devices force the story into something “unnatural”—something different from the story in your mind. So you ultimately have to make a choice between what’s more important: your own conception of what the story is, or turning the story into a novel which gratifies your readers.
Week 3: Turning Stories into a Novel, Part 1
Kelsey Englert covers
Fiction: Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge
Essay: “Novels into Stories, Stories into Novels” from my blog, The Big Thing
Bring to class a list of subplots/layers/throughlines in Mrs. Bridge
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.”
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!
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
- Form of the book imitates its theme. Such as the Things They Carried.
The topic is “Turning Stories into a Novel.” The stories are those by Raymond Carver, and the “novel” is the movie Short Cuts.