Dear Indie Annie,
I have been looking for books where the author strings together a collection of short stories that build into a larger story. The Magnus Archives is a fiction podcast that I have discovered, but I’m looking for other works that do something similar. Do you have any recommendations? Does this kind of storytelling have a name?
Searching for Serials
Dear Searching for Serials,
You sweet little serialist. I am so glad you asked me this question about story cycles because cyclic storytelling is having what I believe the youngsters call a “glow-up” at the moment, though this style of storytelling has been popular for millennia. A story cycle is when an author strings together a collection of short stories or vignettes that revolve around a central theme, storyline, or cast of characters. The individual tales can stand alone, but they also connect and build on each other to form a larger, more expansive narrative.
Story cycles have been around since before books were even bound—think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Scheherazade spun her interconnected tales in One Thousand and One Nights to survive. Contemporary examples that may ring a bell are Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man or Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.
But lately, cycles are seriously back in vogue across all mediums. On TV, think of shows like Lost, American Horror Story, and Fargo. Novelists are getting in on it too—Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine are just a few examples. Short story cycles are also surging. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth will give you all the feels (another phrase I believe is popular with the younger generation).
As for why cycles are having such a significant renaissance right now, I think it’s because it allows authors to explore a world through different lenses, like a multifaceted diamond. Take Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic cycle, Station Eleven. Each chapter follows new characters and binds the narratives as humanity attempts to rebuild after tragedy. There’s also Tommy Orange’s There There, which dives into the lives of various Native people converging at a powwow.
Cycles leave plenty of room for experimentation and surprise. You can play with the chronology, mix in different genres, and take the story in wild new directions, such as in Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy King of Scars duology. Or consider how Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black uses satire and surrealism across each searing vignette.
So feast on those cycles, sweet pea! This style allows for boundless innovation. Whether it’s revisiting beloved worlds or exploring new territory, we clearly have not seen the last of the genre.
If you want to try crafting your own story cycle, start by brainstorming a specific setting, theme, or group of characters to link your stories. Outline each tale like they are individual short stories while planting clues, references, or characters that connect them. Take advantage of the format to experiment with styles, perspectives, and timelines. Most importantly, focus on making each mini story compelling while advancing the overall narrative. Map it out so it flows seamlessly, then dive right in, my little serialist. A captivating world of possibilities awaits.
But before you leap, a few words of caution! While the short story format offers flexibility, be wary not to isolate the tales too much. Build in overlapping characters, settings, and themes—bridges between the stories. Don’t just loosely collect tales together; interweave them intentionally.
- Cycles are not necessarily constrained by chronology, but take care the story order makes sense and builds momentum. You can play with the timeline, but avoid confusing your readers.
- Resist the urge to tie every story up neatly with a bow. Let some details or character arcs carry over to be resolved later. Leave room for mystery and discovery.
- Take advantage of the format to experiment, but avoid radically changing styles or genres from chapter to chapter unless you have a compelling reason. Allow variety but with some coherence.
- Allow ideas to emerge and evolve as you go. Story cycles are organic. Keep track with a spider graph or a similar tool to guide development.
Most importantly, make each individual story shine in its own right. The micro makes the macro!