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.

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 signatureillustration.org

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.

Linking Stories are Like Legos

(By Tyler J. Petty)

Endings are always difficult to write. It’s almost impossible to include everything you want to have in a story, and the process of deciding what really needs to be there versus what I want to have in the story can be enough to make me want to abandon the project altogether. And all of that comes before the question of how I’m going to organize the story so that the thing I want to finish with (assuming I even know what that is) actually comes at the “end” of the story.
As difficult as all those issues are to navigate when you’re working with a single story, the process becomes even more complicated when you’re writing a series of linked stories. With the linked stories I’m working on right now, I have to figure out what I’m going to do with all of those issues and possibilities for each individual story, and at the same time, keep in mind how each story fits into the overall narrative I want to tell, which stretches across all of those stories.
It’s like I have ten sets of Legos. Each one has its own composite pieces that fit together to construct a pirate ship, castle, or space station, and each set is internally complete. That is, I don’t have any leftover pieces when I finish the pirate ship. As I’m building the individual sets, however, I decide that I want all of them to connect together and form a much larger set that incorporates all the castles and space stations, and that also combines a new, unified super-set. And I have to do combine them in a way that doesn’t make the super-set look like a Frankenstein’s monster of mismatched pieces.
The way I see it, that is the largest difficulty in constructing a series of linked stories: Ending each story so that it’s complete, but also feeds into the other stories around it and allows room for them to connect and cohere into a larger whole.
One approach that has helped me with the series of linked stories I’m currently writing is the decision to write all of them in first-person. That has allowed me to use the limitations and gaps in a given character’s awareness as sockets into which I can fit the perspective of a different character, which then helps to clarify the previous story, while at the same time branching off and becoming a story of it’s own.
For example, the first story in my series, “Thirteen Little Words,” is narrated by Jenna, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives with her single mother. Jenna has a collection of books in which she and her father wrote notes and comments while they read them together. Jenna’s father is now out of the picture, so she uses the books, such as A Little Princess,  as a substitute for him:
Miss Minchin was quite agitated. This was an incident
which suggested strange things to her sordid mind. Could
it be that she had made a mistake, after all, and that the
neglected child had some powerful though eccentric friend                        
in the background—perhaps some previously unknown                        Trace mine, Dad.           
relation who had suddenly traced her whereabouts, and                        I’d take anything
chose to provide for her in this mysterious and fantastic way?             from you.
Jenna’s collection has expanded beyond just the books from her father, however. She also has a collection of fairy tales with a set of notes in them. She discovers the fairy tales previously belonged to Harold, a man she meets at the local park. When Jenna offers to give the fairy tales back to Harold, he refuses, saying, “My days with this book are over.” Harold then exits the story, while Jenna continues to narrate it.
Harold narrates the next story in the collection, “An Echo of Better Days,” which explains how and why he wrote those notes in the fairy tale collection, and also why he chose to give it away. In that story, Harold also mentions a waiter at the local French restaurant named Charles; the next story, “Poulet avec Legumes,” is narrated by Charles.
Using these sockets has helped me to think of each story as a separate entity, with its own plot and narrative arc, while also keeping my out for the “open spaces” I can use to fit the stories together, building them up into a creation that maintains the integrity of all the individual pieces, but also combines them into a new, unified structure.

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.