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: 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

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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Reverse Storyboards

by Cathy Day

In order to get my students to think about moving from writing small, disparate, individual things toward big, unified, linked things, I’ve been having them use a technique I call “reverse storyboarding.” 

Basically, they take the book we’re studying and–in any way that makes sense to them–thumbnail the chapters or stories, then display and talk us through their reverse storyboard. I told them: It can be on paper (post its, index cards, posterboard, drawn on blackboard) or digital (via Scrivener, Corkboard.me, linoit.com, a website, Prezi, etc.), but it must be visual and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so that we can “see” the entire structure of the book. 

These are my students, and these are the questions I wanted them to consider as they engaged this activity: 

Aubrie Cox used a mobile to create a three-dimensional grid
in order to talk about the structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad. 
What can I learn about how to write my own book from reading this book? What did I learn from the activity of storyboarding the book in reverse? (I’m going to let them answer that question in their own posts.) 

John Bahler used butcher paper to chart
the character subplots in Mrs. Bridge.
What is its formula? It’s map or blueprint or logic or “scaffolding” (a wonderful term used by Sean Lovelace). 

Tyler Petty created a website to create a chronological timeline for each character in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Find it at http://goonsquadtimelines.weebly.com/ 

How did the author sustain both long and short story arc? How did she move the project from short story collection toward novel?

Sarah Grubb tracked change in Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, dividing her list into categories (concrete vs. abstract change, potential or desire for change vs. unrealized dreams, etc.) and displaying those categories as phases of the moon. 

What principle determines the book’s structure or chaptering? What is a chapter? What is a story? What makes a chapter feel like a chapter and not a scene?

Heather Gemmen Wilson used corkboard.me to keep track of every time Mrs. Bridge
said she’d do something–but didn’t do it. Obviously, this happened a lot. 

How does the book juggle the different subplots within the structure it’s chosen? How do you make sure that each subplot has its own arc—beginning, middle, end? Imagining that a novel is like a seasonof a TV series, does the book develop all the subplots each episode (like Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or Glee, for example) or does the book tend to focus on one subplot or character each episode (like LOST, for example).

In this book, how does the arc of each story compare to the arc of the whole book?

Kat Greene used Prezi to re-shuffle the stories in Winesburg, Ohio.

How does the book keep the reader turning pages? What major dramatic questions are in my mind as I read? What keeps me in suspense, and how did the author create that suspense?

For Linda Taylor, the tornado scene in Mrs. Bridge
became a way to organize the different vignettes in the book–tornadic-ally!

Why this way and not another way? Or how would different narrative decisions, different orders, produce different effects?

Stacye Cline used CDs that looked like albums to talk about
the circular structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Can I find out from author interviews how the book was written? Did the author write the stories/chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, or did she write them as they came to her and assemble them later? Which method will work for me so that I can avoid getting stuck, confused, overwhelmed by a big project? 

(My apologies to Josh Flynn and Katie Iniech, who presented on Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon the night that my camera/phone was on the fritz. I’ll get their reverse storyboards up later!)

I found these presentations fascinating, and I think my students learned a lot about linking from this process of unlinking, relinking, reshuffling, rebuilding, straightening, unstraightening, charting, color coding, encapsulating–which forced them to notice things they might have missed otherwise. 

Now, they are getting ready to workshop their own linked stories, and they’re not reverse storyboarding anymore. They’re charting their own course now. 

Give characters life a few words at a time

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Evan S. Connell’s 1959 novel, Mrs. Bridge, is a characterization textbook for writers of all experience levels. Throughout the book, Connell focuses on the title character’s relationships with family and friends as well as her reluctance to achieve personal growth. The reader witnesses Mrs. Bridge attempt to present a public image that doesn’t draw attention towards herself and her family. At times, the reader glimpses her genuine emotion and concern.

What makes Connell’s character study so impressive is that he explores the Mrs. Bridge character using short vignettes. Many of the book’s chapters could be what we call today flash fiction. But in the late 1950’s Connell showed a mastery of the form, proving less could sometimes be more.

There are several things writer’s can learn from reading this book:

-how to give evidence to support character traits

-how to show and not tell

-how to effectively build a character in a small amount of space

-how to set up subplots as consequences of character behavior

-how to plant seeds using character traits that ultimately reveal a major truth about the character

Below is a brief analysis of the first five vignettes—or chapters—and the structure of Mrs. Bridge:

1. The first sentence in the book reveals the desire for a normalcy so extreme that the attention of others is never drawn—“Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it.” India is a name people might ask about. “Where did it come from? What does it mean?” It’s not a name like Jane or Susan, so common nobody bats an eye. And in Mrs. Bridge’s world you should never draw attention to yourself. Connell shows the reader s this in the very first sentence. And for the remainder of the book when the narrator refers to her it is by Mrs. Bridge.

Mrs. Bridge considered not getting married, a thought that concerned her parents. This key fact is quickly told in the vignette’s second paragraph—“Now and then while she was growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband, and, to the distress of her mother and father, this idea prevailed for a number of years after her education had been completed.” This sentence suggests the role her parents played in shaping Mrs. Bridge’s attitude. It also foreshadows her own attempts at shaping her children and her frustrations when they prove to be individuals.

2. When Mrs. Bridge gives birth to her first child her first thought is “Is she normal?” The second vignette strengthens the character’s desire for a homogenized existence. A plan to have no more than three children is revealed at section two’s end because “there would be no sense in continuing what would soon become amusing to other people.” This anecdote reinforces the character’s fear of becoming fodder for gossip.

3. The third vignette begins with “She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.” Here we get what amounts to Mrs. Bridge’s mission statement—what she believes she is working towards, or perhaps justifications for her repressed lifestyle. But what’s important in this section is the anecdote at the end. While at the neighborhood pool, Ruth, the oldest child, strips out of her bathing suit. When Mrs. Bridge notices her daughter’s nudity she begins chasing the child, trying to catch her and rectify the situation. At first Ruth thinks this is a game but by the end she is “screaming hysterically.” This is a moment that echoes throughout the book. We see a similar situation with Douglas when he decides to build a tower in an empty lot—that desire not to be seen in the public eye in any fashion other than normal. We also get our first glimpse at Mrs. Bridge’s uncomfortable and prudish nature when it comes to issues of sex. And finally, we can trace Ruth’s story arc to this moment as being the point where Mrs. Bridge loses her daughter’s love.

4. The next two vignette’s focus on the issue of the haves and the have-nots. The first moment centers around a breakfast discussion where Bridge tells her second child, who announces she is tired of marmalade, that some children aren’t fortunate enough to have marmalade. In the next chapter, Bridge adopts a poor family at Christmas time, buying gifts for them. These are seeds that pay off in chapter 51. In the early vignettes, Mrs. Bridge’s desire to help the needy could be seen as false, her actions an attempt to raise her standing in the community. But remember, Mrs. Bridge is a character who doesn’t want attention directed towards her, and helping the needy to showcase her goodwill could get people thinking, talking, and questioning the her agenda in a manner she doesn’t want. But in chapter 51, when a man she knows shows up trying to sell magazine subscriptions—and showing an ineptness in his salesmanship—Bridge suspects he hasn’t sold a single subscription. When he confirms this, she becomes his first paying customer. It’s perhaps the first real moment we as readers see enacted by Bridge. We see that underneath her insecurities she is very caring. She really does want the best for people. She just can’t fight through the many protective barriers she has built—or others have built for her—throughout her life.

5. Finally, why vignettes? Think of each vignette as a moment of Bridge’s life she wouldn’t want others to know about. In each section we see her façade breached. If we were only privy to the performances Mrs. Bridge presents, this would be a very boring book. But we see her with her guard down. We see her at her fakest. We see her when she is a real person. We see what she spends her life trying to hide. It’s a strong strategy to build a complex character trying so hard to be one-dimensional and an example of form playing to characterization.

A writing exercise: Write five 750 word-vignettes that reveal a different character trait in each one. In the fifth vignette, try to take one of the traits and turn reader expectations in an attempt to reveal a truth about the character.

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Writing Techniques in Mrs. Bridge

If novels are akin to movies, then linked stories (story cycles and/or composite novels) are like television series. One of my first reactions to Mrs. Bridge  was that while it feels more like a novel than Winesburg, Ohio, it also feels rather episodic.
Reading as a writer, I noticed several major techniques within Connell’s writing of Mrs. Bridge.
Use of Time Jumps/Gaps
Stories do not have to fall in direct succession. While this can happen in the traditional novel, it can be particularly successful in linked stories. Less is more. In Mrs. Bridge, as well as Midwestern life, not much happens quickly. Thus, it’s easy to make leaps and bounds. This accomplishes several things: (1) It avoids boring the reader with the mundane details that are repeated throughout everyday life. Common knowledge about the era or what happens in a traditional household can be glossed over in certain instances. (2) It creates tension and keeps the reader turning the pages. Because things build up slowly and over time, the writer can jump forward so that the event has already happened or is in the progress of happening. The reader is intrigued and keeps reading in order to gain insight into what brought about the change, what happened during the time gap (one moment Corky is in high school, the next, she’s in university), or what effect this will have on the future (Ruth and Douglas are two prime examples). (3) The changes become more noticeable when the author fast forwards to it. Rather than picking up the tiny moments through the muck of everyday life, the reader gets them in clusters within each story.
Limited Perspective in Combination with Semi-Omniscient Narrator
As the reader, we view the majority of the story through Mrs. Bridge herself. Oftentimes, she and the narrator can appear to be one and the same. Additionally, most of the events and thoughts the reader is privy to are based upon what is significant to Mrs. Bridge. And why not? She is the title character of the story. However, the reader sometimes will be given access to another character’s perspective for a brief period. Perhaps this is Connell’s way of acknowledging gaps Mrs. Bridge’s point of view can’t fulfill. Key examples would be instances where her children reveal their view on their parents’ relationship and cases where her husband does something without her knowledge (like buying the painting in France). The juxtaposition of these points of view add depth to the characters and the reader’s understanding of Mrs. Bridge and her position within the family. If the reader was given access to all these perspectives all the time, however, the story would not have near the interest it does when just through Mrs. Bridge’s eyes—the reader can be left to guess what the reality is versus the perception, but sometimes the reader also needs access to what the reality might be in order to make educated guesses.
Additionally, perhaps because of the usually limited perspective, the reader is told a lot of details (Mrs. Bridge’s feelings, events that have happened in the past, etc). But through the act of telling, Connell often will also show the reader what he wants him or her to take away from the train of thought. Mrs. Bridge’s thoughts are often accompanied by strong imagery, such as her son’s worn clothes or a retelling of what one of her children had done (particularly the strange things Douglas used to do when he was younger). Although Mrs. Bridge is clearly worried, the narrator, who has the power to step in and further influence the reader’s perspective of Mrs. Bridge and her thoughts (or the reader’s view of the children), often refrains from doing so.
Chapters, stories, or microfiction?
This last point is both a question and takeaway for me. A part of me wants to call each part of Mrs. Bridge a chapter, because of the continued narrative throughout the story, but given the type of book that it is, I’m compelled to call them “sections” or “stories.” Do all the stories need to stand completely on their own in a book such as Mrs. Bridge? When reading the book within three days, I had a difficult time imagining one of sections standing alone in a literary magazine, but this is because I knew the backstories, the characters, and that there was more to the story than that individual incident. But every now and then, I would try to isolate a single story (particularly during the vacation episodes). It completely altered my perspective of Mrs. Bridge as a character. In some instances, she seemed more oblivious than I had previously taken her, or perhaps more prejudice (when otherwise I might be more forgiving, knowing her background). Most episodes (a decidedly better term for each section of this book) have at least one or two sentences at the beginning to orient the reader with time, place, and what the story is concerning (not unlike a TV series first thirty seconds of “Previously on X”). As aforementioned, what is often skipped in time jumps is common, everyday topics. Summarizing them within those first few sentences easily places the reader into a situation he or she can relate to–When Mrs. Bridge and her husband go to visit Ruth in her new apartment for the first time, I could already imagine the excitement and anxiety that the characters must be feeling, just recently having had both my mother and grandmother in my first apartment for the weekend. Essentially, within each episode, Connell not only begins with what he knows, but what the majority of his readers know as well, and can easily move into meat of that individual incident.