The Practice of Creativity

Learning about ‘Story Cycles’ and ‘A Novel Told in Stories’

Posted on: June 10, 2013

When someone says they are hosting a ‘literary salon’, I’m never sure what to expect. There’s always prep work to do on my end: dress well, remind myself of five recent outstanding books I’ve read, remind myself to use good posture, and, of course practice a pithy answer to the “What are you working on?’ question. I’ve only been to a few literary salons and I think of them as opportunities to practice being a writer in public. Some literary salons are more like informal gatherings, hosted in someone’s home, with a newly published author; others involve having a lively conversation about favorite works and the state of publishing.

A few weeks ago, when writing teacher and friend, Marjorie Hudson said she was hosting a literary salon with Clifford Garstang, most recently author of What the Zhang Boys Know: A Novel in Stories and inviting me–I immediately said yes.  Marjorie and Clifford know each because they are both published by Press 53, and she has been an admirer and supporter of his work for some time. Garstang is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine and is also author of the well-known blog Perpetual Folly. I knew at this gathering there would be good food, a copy of the author’s book and a chance to mix and mingle with other writers.

Marjorie Garstang3

What I didn’t know is that I was that at this salon, we were going to be treated to a wonderful craft discussion about the concept of ‘story cycles’ and ‘a novel told in stories’. Marjorie Garstang2

Clifford talked for a few minutes about his own journey as someone who wanted to be a writer right out of college, then traveled to Southeast Asia and instead became a lawyer. Even while he was a lawyer though, he never stopped thinking about writing.  Twenty years later he returned to writing. Fascinating! I’m hoping you’ll get to hear more of his story here, later this summer, in an interview.

This is a brief summary of his very substantive talk:

With an interlinked set of stories a writer can create a ‘wide angle lens’ way of telling a big story that has the feel of a novel. He provided a broad typology of
‘story cycles’:

-Stories that are loosely connected in a collection

-Linked short story collections

-A novel told in stories—linkages are tighter (you’re really telling one big story)

-a polyphonic novel (multiple voices and points of view)

He said that the linkages among and across stories can be made in multiples ways:

-using a setting that ties all stories together

-using one character that appears in each story (but not necessarily as the main character)

-using one character throughout all stories that is a main character

-using a big theme that explores a group experience or worldview.

He gave examples of each type. I’ll name just a few:

God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr. (linked short stories that begins with the premise that God came to earth and died)

Dubliners by James Joyce (stories that are linked by theme and setting)

Accidental Birds of the Carolinas by Marjorie Hudson (loosely linked stories that examine displacement and community for people who move to the South).

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (linked stories that follow one character)

One I would add to this list is Ursula Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness (interlinked novellas set in the future on two different worlds).

The other thing that Clifford impressed on us is that each type of ‘story cycle’ can create a different effect for the reader. Sometimes all the stories in a collection build toward the last story and a deep resolution, and in other instances with less tightly linked stories, there’s no final resolution, but the reader still senses that the “whole is greater than its parts.”

Marjorie Garstang1

Marjorie and Clifford had an engaging conversation about the process of writing interlinked short stories. Is it always intentional? Well, no… Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re writing a set of interlinked stories until you’re far along—you can discover it along the way as you ask more questions about your characters.

I loved his craft talk and now have a long list of new authors to read. The handful of writers in attendance at this literary salon ate great food and talked about the loves and labors of the writing life. A perfect day!

 

 

7 Responses to "Learning about ‘Story Cycles’ and ‘A Novel Told in Stories’"

Sounds like a great time. 🙂

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It really was, Kelly! Thanks for stopping by.

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Thanks so much for sharing! I didn’t really know what this was either, so it’s fascinating to see how it can be achieved in so many different ways. I’m realizing that my WIP is a story cycle. It tells the story of three very different characters and their reactions to one common event. So it’s three separate stories each with different protagonists, but each appearing in the other stories as minor characters. Each has their own character arc, own epiphanies, resolutions. But the over-arching “story” has an arc too, and the whole cycle comes to a resolution in the final chapters. Thanks for helping me understand what I’m doing in a new way. Awesome!

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Hi Deborah,
I’m so glad that this post helped you connect the dots related to your own work. I remember when I started my first novel, I wanted to write in as a series of interlinked novellas–everyone in my writing group thought I was crazy and said I needed one narrator for the story to be told through. Although I didn’t accept all of their advice (my story does have multiple narrators), their comments did stop me for awhile. Just goes to show that we often speak out of our own ignorance sometimes when we tell others about ‘what’s possible in fiction’.

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i don’t know what, exactly, a literary salon is or is supposed to be, but if it’s a bunch of awesome people discussing various permutations of the written word, I’ve been privileged to host many and participate in more.

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Hi Beverly,
Yup, your definition sounds right. They seem to span a continuum.

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[…] Clifford Garstang a few weeks ago at Marjorie Hudson’s literary salon. His craft talk on the ‘story cycle’ captivated the audience. In listening to his journey from young writer to lawyer back to writer, I […]

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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