A short story cycle can also be described as ‘linked short stories’ or ‘a novel in short stories’. Whatever we choose to call it, the genre consists of a number of stories linked in a variety of ways. Each story stands alone with its own structure and plot. However, when published together they make a satisfying reading experience, comparable to a longer work of fiction.
The first short story cycle I remember reading, Fineflour (1990) by the acclaimed Australian author, Gillian Mears, intrigued and touched me deeply. The river Fineflour flows through the book and links the often sad stories of those whose lives it affects over several generations.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout uses linked short stories to great effect. You can read my blog about Elizabeth Strout and why I love her writing here.
You can read my review of The Smokehouse, by Melissa Manning by clicking on the title. It’s the most recent short story cycle I’ve read. Others include Tim Winton’s The Turning, Tony Birch’s Shadowboxing, and Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking Dogs. For more Australian examples, click here.
The genre seemed to go out of favour when mainstream publishers in the latter part of the last century decided that collections of short stories were less viable than longer works. But short stories, and this special genre, are regaining popularity worldwide with readers and publishers.
Unless the stories connect in a meaningful way, the result is a collection of random stories, rather than a cycle or a novel.
For a cycle to work, the writer must develop a meaningful reason for its being, perhaps in the form of an serious, overarching question. This provides a framework that affects many characters. The reader recognises the answer or solution at the end.
Each story must connect to some of the others, although not every story connects to all others. Sometimes a story or even a character simply hints at or implies a connection.
Only limitations of the writer’s creativity can curb the ways stories can be linked. Elements shared by stories weave in and out. Below, a few examples.
- Characters can link short story cycles. Characters don’t need to appear in many stories. They don’t even have to have a story of their own, but can recur in small parts in other people’s stories.
- A town, a river, a beach; a hotel, hospital or school; a dance floor, a football field or a war can provide the setting for the stories. Anything goes.
- Themes like mother-love, grief, romance or horror that link stories can be particularly effective.
- Motifs such as music, the ocean, trees can be powerful as links.
Reasons to love a short story cycle
Finally, some reasons why we should enjoy more linked short stories.
- As busy people, we can read them in small snatches. Each story is complete and independent of the others. As well, we can read easily while we wait for kids pick-up after school or during the commute to work.
- More seriously, there is an element of play involved. Even adults, perhaps specially adults, need to play. There’s fun in making connection between other works and other stories, similar to solving mystery stories.
- Putting the stories together, finding obscure linkages, can be like detective work or a game we play with (or against) the writer. This can result in a small rush of dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
- Readers also experience a sense of achievement when they see subtle connections that have been tucked away for us to find.
- All of the above can be especially good for exercising the ageing brain!
- Writers also enjoy the game. The stories can be written independently, then linked, or planned and linked before writing.
- In either case, there must be threads woven through the stories which is fun for writers as well as readers.
- Leaving clues about connections which a writer hides in stories feels like dropping gifts for the reader to find.
- Because short stories emphasise themes and characters, there is less emphasis on plot. This is a godsend for writers like me who find plotting hard.
- The apparently piecemeal construction of a short story cycle can feel like making a mosaic from tiny pieces. So beautiful. So artistic.
Whether you love or hate short story cycles, I’d really like to hear from you. And, thank you. I love getting comments on my blog posts.