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.

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. 

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.

Winesburg + Prezi

This week, we read and discussed Winesburg, Ohio in my Linked Stories workshop. Oh, how I love this book. I wrote about it here. 

In my class, we “reverse storyboard” the books we’re reading, to take them apart, mix them up, arrange, rearrange, and put them back together again. I don’t think there’s any better way to learn how to structure your own collection than to mess around with the order of a published book in order to learn what makes it tick, how different orders produce different effects and can provide an entirely different reading experience. 

Last week, we turned the poems of Spoon River Anthology into detached, movable pieces. This was easy. I just printed the poems on separate pieces of paper. The poems themselves are thumbnail sketches or screen shots. 

When you’re trying to reverse storyboard a work of fiction, you have to distill each chapter/story down into that thumbnail or screen shot. The thumbnail can be a physical artifact (using Post its, index cards, posterboard, the blackboard) or a digital one (using Scrivener, Corkboard.me, Power Point, or Prezi). No matter how you do it, the storyboard must be visual, and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so we can “see” the entire structure of the book somehow. 

One of my students, Kat Greene, used the presentation software Prezi to storyboard Winesburg. Here she is, walking us through the thumbnails, or in Prezi-speak, “frames.”

Basically, she typed up brief paragraph-long synopses of each story and decided on an arrangement that involves the degree to which each story is related to George Willard, the “through line” of Winesburg, Ohio. The big red circle is George, and the one story that’s all about him is the very last story in the book, “Departure.”

Winesburg, Ohio storyboard on Prezi

As you can see, most of the stories “revolve” around George Willard–literally. The four stories sitting off to the right side, that’s “Godliness,” a four-part story that never mentions George; it doesn’t totally “fit” into Winesburg, and you can actually see that in the Prezi. Other “loose” stories on the screen are those in which George Willard isn’t really mentioned, but as you can see, the stories in which he plays a role as a character far outnumber the number of stories in which he doesn’t–which is one of the main reasons the book reads more like a novel than a collection of disparate short stories. 

Next week, we’re reading Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a book widely regarded as a novel, but what I find interesting about it formally is that it’s comprised of 117 individually titled vignettes. It will be interesting to compare it to Winesburg.