How do you order the stories in a short story collection? What kind of strategy should you be using? Time to get out a pen and paper!
The reason this subject is dear to me right now is based on two things:
- I am currently trying to put together my own collection of stories that have been previously published in various journals and online sites
- I am currently engaged in a daily short story read – which will run either for a month or, if I keep it up, for an entire year
So, I’m going to break this down into different parts.
Let’s start with my own collection. I have a choice between literary, magical realism, and genre fiction. The first two go together. The second two might go together depending on which particular stories I choose.
But all three don’t go together.
There’s too big a jump in atmosphere, style, etc. And one thing I don’t want is to introduce disruption or speed bumps for the reader.
I decided to read through the rough manuscript from start to finish. I wasn’t trying to figure out the order at this point so much as what didn’t belong.
Sure enough, there was one story that didn’t seem to fit with the others. I had already removed some others, so it was a matter of refining it further. This did not decide the order, but it did give me an idea of what will fit and what won’t.
I will probably go through this process a few times just to keep checking. Especially since there are one or two stories still to be added.
In terms of fitting in, it’s not about whether it’s good enough. It’s whether it just seems out of place. Stories that aren’t good enough shouldn’t be included in the first place.
Of course, one temptation is to mix the best stories with some fillers – that way you can save some of the other best stories for another collection, along with more fillers. This might work if you’re prioritising publication over quality.
If you’re playing a slightly longer game, you can add and remove stories over time, until you feel you’ve reached the ideal mix. This means not committing to publication too soon. You might still have some new stories that will fit in better.
One important thing to remember about a short story collection is that it’s like a calling card for the rest of your writing.
Of course, the rest of your writing might also be shorter fiction. Alice Munroe is famous for her short fiction. And writers who excel at the short story don’t necessarily do as well with novels.
So, while a short story collection could act as a calling card for your novel, it might just be an introduction to more of your shorter fiction.
Short story collections are hard to publish via the traditional route. This is where indie publishing is a great option. But as an indie writer, you also have to decide on what to include, and the order in which the stories will appear.
And you might find yourself perplexed by the options – what to include, plus the order.
Do you start off with the best story? The title story?
And now that we’re talking about titles, do you name the collection after the best story in the book?
Or do you take a title from the collection that best illustrates any themes in the book?
Or maybe you have a title that isn’t referencing a story at all.
Even there, the title should in some way reflect what the book is about. Are the stories in a particular genre? Are they love stories? Science fiction stories? Are they stories all set on Mars? Are they steampunk tales? Do they all centre on the same theme?
Unless you have a definite title in mind early on, you might want to put the title problem aside while you deal with the final list of works and the order in which they appear.
So, what’s the best order?
One thing you can do is look at the choices made in other books. During my daily short story challenge, I looked at order choices, and sometimes it’s interesting and other times it’s not helpful at all.
For writers whose work has been released as an entire collection, the stories might be arranged in chronological order. The Elizabeth Bowen collection I recently purchased, which runs to 880 pages, is arranged from First Stories, to The Twenties, The Thirties, The War Years, and Post-War Stories.
I’ve seen other collected works with chronological ordering. But for a first-time collection, this is not your best option. Though, if like Bowen your writing covers a long period of time, there might be a reason to do it.
Then again, she’s famous and her reputation was well-established before the collected stories were published.
So, what about other authors and collections?
In an edition of Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald, the title story is the first in the collection. The second story in the collection is a pre-Gatsby story and one of his best, so it can be said that this book gets off to a strong start. Which is exactly what you want in a collection.
If a reader starts at the beginning, you want to wow them from the start. Especially if they’re sampling your book on Kindle (the opening pages) or in a bookstore.
In Alice Munroe’s Runaway, the first story is the title story of the book. But in Barbara Gowdy’s classic collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story is the second last in the book. It’s also the most memorable and was made into a film.
In Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, the title story is the first in the book. It also benefits from having been adapted to the screen. It’s a famous story further boosted by a famous and classic film.
In Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection, the title story is the very last one in the book.
While Tanith Lee’s classic feminist fairy tale collection, Red as Blood, has the title story as number two in the list.
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection, which includes The Company of Wolves, starts with the title story. Meanwhile, The Company of Wolves is second last, showing again that collections benefit from strong endings.
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others has the title story (later filmed as Arrival) as number three in the contents list.
Back to Tanith Lee and the title story in The Gorgon is the first story in the book. And in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, the title story comes first again.
And so it goes on.
I found other Tanith Lee collections where the title story came first.
And others where the title of the book did not match any story. And this is not unusual either. Sometimes a title comes from a quote or is meant to represent in some way the theme of the collection.
In Women as Demons, there is no story of that name in the book, but the first story is The Demoness. Which is the nearest to the collection’s title.
In Anna Gavalda’s I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere – no story comes close to the book’s title.
So, using a pre-existing story title is a popular choice. It’s also common for that story to kick off the collection or be close to the beginning. It can also be close to the end.
This then brings us to the overall structure of a collection.
In a novel, you want a powerful opening, a strong middle, and a memorable end. A collection should work the same way. The final stories should leave the reader wanting more. The middle shouldn’t flag. But you can include quieter stories in the places in between – just don’t have a bunch of them together, dragging down the pace.
Besides, you should be choosing the best stories anyway. This can include much shorter fiction.
This then brings us to the problem of readers ignoring the chosen order of a collection.
I admit that I’m one of those readers. I study the contents list and choose on the basis of intriguing title, or length.
I’m particularly likely to pick a shorter story if I have less time, am feeling tired, or I’m just getting to know a writer.
If I know I really like a writer’s work, then I’ll tackle the longer stories. Of course, this is something of a generalisation. However, it does introduce a wild card into the ordering of the stories.
You just don’t know what the reader will start with. But you do know if they’re sampling on Kindle, they will be looking at the opening pages. So, you absolutely want those to perform well. Likewise, with any book, you want a powerful ending.
What about grouping together stories that are very similar? This could work really well – you could even divide your collection into sections, like the parts of a book. However, if they’re too similar, putting them together will lead to monotony.
And putting stories that are very different back to back could work very well, or be too disruptive.
When you’re experimenting with the order, try reading stories together to see how they bounce off one another. Play around with the order. And get some beta readers or friends to give you feedback.
Ultimately, there is no right way to go about it, but there are some basics to keep in mind.
It’s common to name the collection after a story in the book, but not absolutely necessary. You can come up with an alternative and even better title that fits in with the overall themes.
You want your collection to get off to a great start. At the very least the first two to three stories should be very strong. Likewise the final stories. You also need a strong middle. Include your best stories, but they also have to be the stories that best fit the collection.
If you find quite a few of your stories follow a theme, this will give you some ideas for the overall title or even the order of the stories.
Also, if you have strong stories with a shorter word count, they can be a great introduction to new readers who are dipping into your collection for the first time.
Another thing worth remembering is to focus more on previously published stories. This is because new stories should usually be sent out to magazines or online sites first.
If you can get your stories published at a journal or magazine, you can use this as PR for your later collection. You can also use newer stories you’re just getting published in magazines to promote an existing collection – via the author bio that comes with your story.
If you want a second opinion on what to include or the order of stories in the collection, feel free to contact me to discuss your project.
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