Posted on March 6, 2018
Short story collections vs cycles
Do you know the difference between a short story collection and a short story cycle? I didn’t until just the other day, so let me enlighten you…
Short story collections
A short story collection is a number of short stories bound together into a book. The stories are not directly related to each other (although they might share common themes or tones of voice), and they can either be written by the same author or several different ones. Short story collections can be organised in a number of ways – perhaps chronologically by the date they were written or published, perhaps grouped together by style or theme, or maybe because the person doing the organising has created some sort of ‘flow’. At their core, though, short story collections include stories that don’t obviously refer to each other. They might be collected together in a book, but they could just as easily have been published at different times in different places and little of their meaning would have been lost.
Short story cycles
A short story cycle, on the other hand, includes stories that were specifically designed to be read together. Perhaps they share very strong themes, they’re set in the same world, or they feature the same characters. The stories in short story cycles can technically stand alone, but they were meant to be read together, and the reader can notice debates and tensions between the stories, or a development of ideas as the stories progress. It’s a subtle distinction but an interesting one – some stories are better together.
It isn’t just about collections and cycles, however. Professor of English Rolf Lundén has suggested that there are three more types of short story groups: the ‘sequence’, in which each story is linked to the ones before it so that the overarching story builds up as you read; the ‘cluster’, in which the links between the stories are less obvious and the stories themselves less united; and the ‘novella’, in which a short story collection is held together by a framing device or common narrator.
My favourite examples
The best way to understand the difference between a short story collection and a short story cycle is probably to read some (oh, what a burden!), so here are some of my favourites to get you started:
- The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (collection)
- The Fahrenheit Twins by Michel Faber (collection)
- Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (collection)
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (cycle)
- Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (cycle)
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (technically a novel, but an argument could be made for it being a cycle)
- The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (is it a novel? Is it a short story cycle? You decide.)
What are your favourite short story collections or cycles? Let me know with a comment down below!