This page is not titled Cyclicals because it contains references to itself in order to annoy graph theorists.

A "Cyclical" is a written work adhering to the following constraints:

  1. The text (usually a short story) must be decomposable into simpler and, for the purposes of this constraint, atomic parts (usually paragraphs).
  2. The reader may begin reading at any one of the text's parts, and read the parts thereafter serially, without skipping any. When the reader reaches the end she must continue at the start of the text. She stops reading when all parts have been read exactly once.
  3. All versions of the story (there will be as many as there are atomic parts) must make sense, particularly in terms of chronology and causality.
  4. A qualitatively different meaning must be taken from the different readings.

Constraint #4 is required to make the effort "interesting," as without it one could simply document 20 different events, utterly unrelated in time and space, and satisfy the constraints.

My one contribution to this field is titled Nine Stories Down, Down Nine Stories, or Stories (Nine Down).

Presentation Issues

Due to the nature of cyclicals, it is hard to present a starting-point-neutral representation of a cyclical. Even with the above grid there is some predisposition to thinking of version #1 as the "real" version, and all the others as variants thereof. One has a tendency to demand that a piece of text have a beginning, middle and end when in fact this is a property of the act of reading rather than the act of writing. Authors of course write with a single ordering in mind (unless, of course, they are writing a cyclical), so this implied contract between reader and writer allows one to overlook the actual origin of the ordering principle that governs how we approach a piece of text.

Martin Amis' Time's Arrow (©1991, Penguin Books) plays with this very contract by narrating a life history in reverse. While not properly a cyclical, I do wonder exactly how this work would read if read backwards, paragraph for paragraph.

Get AcrobatI did some experimentation with ways to present text that has a serial ordering but no prescribed beginning or end. This circular presentation requires the Adobe® Acrobat® Reader to view it; if you do not already have this fine piece of software installed please use the link to the right of this paragraph.

A more clever reading-neutral presentation may be realized by writing the text of the cyclical on the side of a Möbius strip. I performed this experiment successfully, but sadly I have no way of presenting it on your tragically two-dimensional screen. Perhaps a VRML or a Quicktime VR rendition is in order here.