Stringing a novel together

John Yorke on story structure and common mistakes made by writers

News Debut Novelists 2019

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently re-read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, and apart from being surprised at how short it is (163 Pages), what struck me about it, was the structure. Each chapter is virtually a self-contained short story. Some chapters feature characters who don't appear anywhere else in the story. There's some overlap from chapter to chapter, such as towards the end, when the hoboes plan a surprise party for Doc, but wind up destroying his laboratory then find ways to make amends

A novel composed of a series of individual short stories with interconnected characters is properly called a short story cycle.

Short story cycle - Wikipedia

Cannery Row isn't really a short story cycle, but the loosely connected vignettes offering an overview of the myriad picaresque characters makes the reader guess how they'll interact when they meet the next time.

A noted example of the style is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, in which the characters are linked by location but don't form a cohesive novel. Published 100 years ago, in 1919, it's oddly prescient in how it describes the continuing problem of individuals trying to overcome loneliness caused by living in a modern town.

Winesburg, Ohio - Wikipedia

Its twenty-two stories are disconcerting to read, as you briefly enter the lives of characters who express thoughts about identity and fitting into society that we all have.

More recently, Quentin Tarantino created a popular short story cycle with the Hollywood film Pulp Fiction, in which several stories intertwine even though they're out of chronological order

I read Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge last year, in which the title character, a retired school teacher, is the axis around which the residents of a coastal town in Maine revolve. Her presence is always felt, even if she doesn't feature very much in each chapter which functions as a self-contained story.

Such influences made me consider how I organise my own novels. In the latest, completed last autumn, there are several chapters featuring only one character going about their business, with plenty of internal dialogue: my protagonist detective takes time out from a murder investigation, to decompress by visiting the Tate Saint Ives; an ageing prostitute contemplates her clients, while wondering how to move on a stolen painting for enough money to retire; a cat burglar has similar dreams, as he cases a mansion he intends to rob, while imagining life as a charter fisherman in the Mediterranean.

I wanted to convey how, when lives collide, the characters' motivations aren't what they appear to be on the surface. A reader emphasising with a character is more engaged than with a cardboard cut-out figure going through the motions in a predictable way.

Multiple points-of-view in a novel usually allows a writer to show different characters' perspective on a story that unites them, but there's something about penning a short story cycle which creates a disorienting effect in the reader (and maybe the writer) as the characters can be looking in different directions and are not necessarily there to serve a central theme.

I imagine this vagueness could annoy some readers, who prefer a focused approach to storytelling, but when writing a series of novels featuring the same principal characters, with minor support characters passing through, detailing individual tales could add to the impact.

I might try this approach with my next novel.

What do you think?

Could you set a novel in a place, or based on an incident, where the characters barely interacted with one another?

Plotter or pantser, how do you string a story together?


Muriel Rukeyser - Wikipedia
The short story cycle approach seems to be a very literary kind of fiction. I write exclusively in genre, which means that the plot is first and foremost. I find plot-light dramas leave me cold - I'm not the target audience. I don't think this kind of approach can work in genre fiction, because with a single story through-line and expectations of a main character who starts from a place of challenge and changes to overcome it (or at most, a few MCs) you can't afford to start a new character part-way through. You need the whole length of the novel to appropriate understand both the character at the start of the story, and the journey s/he goes through.

If your characters only get a few thousand words each, they can't really go through any kind of a focussed transition, in my opinion. If the journey of your character(s) through the travails of the plot are not the main intent of the story - if you're painting a word picture of a town, or telling the story of a civilisation through the ages, or describing the adventures of a single dollar bill as it passes from hand to hand, then the MC is not a human character. There will always be an MC - something that ties the book together. Otherwise, why are you writing it as a single work?
You can but try Paul. But don't expect to sell staggering amount of copies. No books as described come to mind as ever being a best seller or any author remembered for such; apart from Virginia Woolf, but then she had her husband set up a press so she could publish her books. Still I am fascinated by the idea you don't necessarily have to have people relate to one another or need to tell a whole story about the "growth" of the MC to make a novel meaningful but then I think you have to have some kind of thread running through it to keep it all together in an organic way so as to spark off some appeal.
Cloud Atlas is the only successful novel that I can think of that follows a similar format to this.

If you want to do it, do it; part of writing is enjoyment so if you've got the itch for an interconnected short story approach give it a go.

On the other hand you do have to accept that a novel of this type is a monumental task to adequately plot and structure. It'll require some planning, don't just jump into it, otherwise you'll end up with a plot hole riddled disconnected mess.

You may also want to bear in mind that unless it's exceptional, the commercial appeal of this will probably be limited.

I'd look at it as a pet project and keep it on the back burner to let the interconnected ideas brew some, but don't bet all your hopes on it.
It is an intriguing idea to experiment with for a novel.
I can envisage a story that starts from several disparate points/characters who only meet up towards the end as the story nears it's climax.
The first half of Stephen King's The Stand is much like that with the book jumping from one group or individual to another group over the course of many chapters, each it's own story but each also heading towards the same meeting place.
But if the stories/chapters are only tenuously linked to each other then it's really just a book of short stories with no overall plot, isn't it?
For me I want to be led into a following chapter by the ending in the previous one. I don't want to get absorbed in the story only to have to start on a new one each time and work out the connections. It may be a clever thing to do but not sure it is what most readers want.
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John Yorke on story structure and common mistakes made by writers

News Debut Novelists 2019