I've been writing some things in this style and I'm not entirely sure if there's a term for it - I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of something like this and I'd like to read some more about it to get better at it.

Something like:

"It was a cold night."

Followed by another passage, followed by:

"It was a cold night, for the month of july, which was rather unusual."

And so on.


1 Answer 1


Wetcircuit gave a perfect answer in their comment, but I want to get this question off of the unanswered list. As mentioned, these are "cumulative tales," which are well-suited for tragic tales as they depend on progressively accumulating detail that concludes suddenly. The German tale "Little Louse and Little Flea" is a fine example, ending with the "cumulative" summary and the traditionally sobering denouement:

Little louse has burned herself to death. Little flea is crying. Little door is creaking. Little broom is sweeping. Little cart is running. Little manure pile is burning. Little tree is shaking.

"Oh," said the spring, "then I will begin to flow," and it began to flow furiously. And everything drowned in the water: the girl, the little tree, the little manure pile, the little cart, the little broom, the little door, the little flea, and the little louse, all together.

A Companion to the Fairy Tale includes the chapter "Catch if you can: The Cumulative Tale," which provides some interesting commentary on the structure and history of the cumulative tale, although only a portion of the chapter is freely available:

Rather like a constructed tower of cards, the tale extends itself until it reaches the inevitable collapse – at its best, a resounding memory-racking crescendo of accumulations, which then abruptly stops. With the cumulative tale, the repetitive pattern takes precedence over the plot or, some might say, is the plot. Essentially, the tale exists to add to or multiply itself via those accumulations.

  • I was thinking something less "fairy-tale" and more something that slowly delivers more details about a scene in a repetitive manner, details which may slowly change the tone or context of the passage.
    – Arfons
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 12:49
  • From my understanding, a decent example of this might be the classic short story “The Lottery.” It describes a very brief sequence that is contextually revealed to be different (maybe even the opposite) than it seems at the beginning. This can be characterized as a gradual tonal (or rhetorical) shift. If this is a severe enough shift, it might even be classified as a genre shift. I’m struggling to find a more specific term for what you’re describing – it might be that you’re looking for something more memory-oriented? Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 13:02

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