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