My short story collection is finished! Well, almost. A little more tweaking to do. About 3/4 of the way through my manuscript, I made a table of contents to see my stories as a whole and to think about ordering. Although my stories span five years of writing, there are reoccurring themes that run throughout. I want the order to reinforce these.
“The placement of a story in a collection can alter both its meaning and its affect.” -David Jauss
This isn’t to say an editor won’t change what you, the writer comes up with, or ask you to cut a beloved story, or ask you to write new stories. Authors’ and editors’ opinions on ordering a short story collection differ, but there are commonalities.
First and Last Story
Place your best story first to grab the reader’s attention (a previously published story or one that has garnered much praise). Some editor’s say not to use a story that is too dark, that you want it to appeal to the largest demographic. The last story should also be strong and unifying.
If your title story (if you have one) is your best, it should go first or last. If it’s merely the best title, it can be placed anywhere in the collection as long as what precedes and follows are cohesive.
A novella should be the last story in a collection. Short shorts or flash fiction pieces can be sprinkled throughout to alter the rhythm and and flow.
Cluster stories with similar themes together.
Think what kind of ride you want to take your readers on. Is it a roller coaster, or do you want a slow build to a big finish?
Arrange stories with overlapping characters side by side and in chronological order. You may want to group stories by the protagonists’ age group.
Place can influence order. Keep stories that share a geographical location together or spread them out.
Consider how a reader might feel at the end of one story, and decide whether you want to maintain that mood or shake things up. A transition might be an image, key word, or title that relates to a previous story.
These stories stand out from the collection because of style, structure, or pov. Place these somewhere in the middle as you want to bookend with work that is most representational of your style. A story might not belong, instinctively you know this, but you’re hoping to sneak it in. I say go for it – the editor will tell you if it’s a no go.
Write each title on a separate index cards or strips of paper. Underneath, write the word count, theme, mood and a couple of key words. Spread the cards out on the floor and begin arranging . . . and rearranging. This will help you move from one possibility to the next with ease until you feel what’s right. Some ordering is subconscious, similar to the writing process.