Linking on a Micro-Level

by Aubrie Cox

When I found there was such a form as linking stories, I felt right at home. Working with forms such as haiku, tanka, and renku, I am expected to link from one image to the next, from one poem to the next. For example:

empty house
ghost stories seeping
into the walls

shadows shift
on yesterday’s paper

(from “Ghost Stories” by Aubrie Cox, Notes From the Gean 3.3, December 2011)

These two links of the renku are separate images that are easy to imagine separately, but when put together, they create a new thing–a new experience and a bigger picture that would not have existed otherwise. While the second link expands the feelings of emptiness, loneliness, it also shifts to a slightly different, but related, thought (old stories). This is basically how I view linked stories.

For my project this semester, I came in with material that I had been trying to shape to meet these expectations, while also blending haiku aesthetics (nature-oriented, objectivity, capturing a moment and little things, and room for interpretation) with the conventions of fiction (story, plot, character). These stories had a reoccurring character with a reoccurring structure (lines of a single haiku integrated throughout the story, and then the full poem at the end of the story). The mistake was that I was using a very traditional, manuscript format for a very experimental writing.

It was kind of like trying to paint a Ralph Steadman piece using Michelangelo’s brush.

First Day of Creation by Michelangelo from Web Gallery of Art

DR Gonzo Mono by Ralph Steadman from

By the time I got to workshop, there was a lot of discussion among the group about how the extension description worked, and how it didn’t (mostly didn’t). I remember our professor reading through one section and suddenly saying, “Wait! Something’s happening here, but I almost missed it among all this description.” That was the first little “ah ha” moment—okay, so I need to make sure I’m not burying the action. And she went on to say that I should consider reparagraphing and examining the space on the page. The little “ah ha” suddenly became “AH HA!”

As writers, we often discuss how to write so that the reader keeps turning the pages; what I needed to do was figure out how to keep the reader reading from sentence to sentence. I had to link moment to moment.

I started with this:

And ended with this:

Of course, I’m sure the burning question is… how? Well, for starters, as recommended by Cathy, I read Sean Lovelace’s Fog Gorgeous Stag to see how words could be rearranged on the page, and how white space played just as much a part in the composition as the words. To realize that, yes, I am allowed to start moving around the text to create a different visual experience (and therefore reading experience) was absolutely liberating.

Step 1: Rip Apart the Paragraphs

Before I could gut my work, I had to take a good hard look at it. I had to read each individual sentence to examine how it functioned with the whole, and then determine how much space it deserved on the page. The questions I asked myself usually included:

What does this sentence do?
How important is the information in the sentence?
Does it deserve to be alone or does it work better with several sentences?

Most paragraphs were broken down into three sections at the very least.

Step 2: Exodus from the Word Processor

Microsoft Word and I don’t necessarily get along. No matter how many auto functions I turn off, I still find myself fighting with the program to make it do what I want to do. So one of the first things I asked was, “Can I do it in InDesign?”

Adobe InDesign, which is a program designed to create page layouts for print and digital publications, gave me more flexibility to move and shape type in pieces at a time in ways that would have probably given Word an aneurism.

Eat your heart out, Word.

If I wanted to move a couple sentences of from one side of the page to the other, or make one section a block while the sentence after stretched across the page, I could do so without worrying about the rest of the page changing on me.

Step 3: Like Information Does Like Things

It took a while before I figured out what I wanted my system to be—I knew I couldn’t just randomly throw words into the file and arrange them to where I thought, “That looks pretty!”

The first thing that clicked for me was dialogue. To further distinguish who was talking, I put one character’s dialogue to the left side of the page, and the other to the right (I always had only two characters talking at a time). It was quite revealing to see which characters dominated conversations, and in some cases, I think will also be revealing to the reader.

Throughout the stories, the patterns vary, but on each individual page (or spread), sections of text have been laid out to reflect similarities in the content or how much attention that passage deserves.

Step 4: Movement Across the Page (Linking of Ideas)

When I write scenes, I usually have a sense of movement in my mind. The eternal camera sweeps across the scenery in a particular direction, and I was able to mimic that movement in the layout of the pages. In a photograph, you want to direct the viewer’s eye from one side of the picture to the other, to direct him or her to a focal point. On the page, I wanted to direct the reader from one passage to the next.

This is where the linking becomes most apparent, both in layout and the text. If the next passage is closely related (such as, a cause and effect moment), it is probably a closer proximity than a passage that shifts the direction of the story (action to dialogue). In considering what the consequence the next moment or even next sentence has on the previous text determined where I placed it on the page. Meanwhile, I tried to keep in mind that the reader’s eye would have to be directed to the next sentence/passage.

Overall, I feel as though I came out of this project with a new way to compose my fiction. By breaking it down into small portions, I could focus on the individual words and create manageable portions for my reader to keep him or her from getting bogged down in the details while also pausing to appreciate the little things.

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,,, 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 

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 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.