One of the best articles about organizing a story collection comes from David Jauss, in an article he wrote for Writer’s Chronicle, “Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection.” In it, he writes, “The placement of a story in a collection can alter both its meaning and its affect.” A bad order can ruin good stories, while a great order can actually improve them.
Ten Guidelines for Ordering a Collection:
1. Benjamin Percy argues that you should put your best stories at the beginning
If you want to hook the reader, put the strongest or most celebrated stories at the beginning. He uses his own advice when he starts Refresh, Refresh, with the Paris Review published and Plimpton Prize story “Refresh, Refresh,” then follows it up with the Glimmer Train story “The Caves In Oregon.” The lead stories are my favorite ones in the book.
2. It’s always tempting to squeeze one black sheep in at the end. Don’t.
I always disliked that Nathan Englander tried to shoehorn “In This Way We Are Wise,” into the end of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It didn’t match the other stories in tone, style, and content. Make sure all the stories really cohere.
3. Build your own structure, and then order stories according to that logic. Jauss offers five possibilities:
“According to Forster, an hourglass structure is one in which the characters and/or themes gradually change until they reverse themselves in the middle and go in the opposite direction for the remainder of the work.” (Longstreet’s Night-Blooming Cereus)
John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse “would be strung together on a few echoed and developed themes and would circle back upon itself: not to close a simple circuit like that of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, emblematic of Victorian eternal return, but to make a circuit with a twist to it, like a Möbius strip.”
“Amy Hempel’s In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried is composed of brief, fragmentary, discontinuous sections that may seem relatively unrelated until, eventually, the reader is able to assemble them and the whole picture comes together.”
In Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Sandra Cisneros “states an idea or image in the first sentence, flies away with it and returns to the same image (the way a musician returns to a chord) to ground the story in the end.”
“Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” describes, again and again, differently each time, the death of a man who stepped on a land mine. The Things They Carried, the collection that contains this story, employs a similar structure. Several of its stories obsessively retell-and often revise-the events of earlier stories.”
4. Daniyal Mueenuddin argues that the “last [story] should open the book out.”
That, and it should also leave your readers on a strong note, something that unifies the collection. Treat the last story as the last page of any of your stories. It has to make emotional sense of everything that’s come before and wrap things up.
5. Put your novella at the end.
Sorry Nam Le, but the whole novella-in-the-middle technique in The Boat threw me. I thought I was getting into a short story, but boy did I have a lot more coming. Follow Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Sightseeing) and George Saunders (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) and have it finish the book off.
6. If you have any overlapping characters, put these next to each other in the book.
You’ll create connections by juxtaposition. It’s also easier to transition from one story to the next if we can stick with the same character.
7. Build what David Jauss calls Liaisons:
“Liaisons are the principal cement that mortars our stories together into a unified collection. In his superb book Shakespearean Design, the scholar Mark Rose defines a liaison as a key word or image whose repetition links two seemingly divergent scenes in a play and thereby reveals their underlying connection and unity.
Ann Pancake’s Given Ground contains an excellent example. Her story “Wappatomaka” concludes with the sentence “I drop my shovel because I am tired, heavy with this dirt in our veins,” and the next story, “Dirt,” repeats, in its very title, that sentence’s key word.”
8. Here’s another piece of advice from Daniyal Mueenuddin: “The first story . . . should be bright and immediately appealing.”
Bright is key — you don’t want a super-depressing story to launch the collection. You also want one that appeals to the largest demographic (that is, if you want people to continue reading.)
9. If you have shorter stories, or ones that use a different point of view, or stick out in other freakish ways, consider placing these in the middle.
It’ll be a nice change-up for the reader, and yet the reader will have a chance to see your solid material and style again before they leave your book. A.M. Holmes does this with the title story in “Things You Should Know,” which is even quirkier than the rest of the stories in the collection.
10. Don’t feel that the title story has to come in a particular place in the collection.
I’ve seen them as the first story (Refresh, Refresh, Benjamin Percy), in the middle (Voodoo Heart, Scott Snyder), and at the end (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell). The title story isn’t the best story, just the best title. And if you lack a smash-bang story title, make up a title that doesn’t come from a story (Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard).
Thanks for this! I don’t have a whole collection yet, but I hope to someday. And when I do, I feel like this will be a great guide/resource to come back to. 🙂
Me either. Very helpful!
Very interesting indeed;-)
That Jauss essay on Stacking Stones is in his new collection of fiction essays called Alone with All That Could Happen and that book is fucking awesome!!! I highly recommend it to any and everyone that wants to write.
Words Overflown by Stars is another collection of essays on poetry and fiction edited by him and came out a few months ago! Another winner1
I’m honestly confused by the statement in the opening paragraph. “can alter both its meaning and its affect.” do you mean that the mood(affect) of the collection can be altered, or that the placement will alter the emotion that is produced. Either word might fit here, if you accept that a story can have a mood.
The placement of the story in the collection can alter the meaning of the story itself — how the story is interpreted — and also the affect — how it affects the experience/emotions of the reader.
So I think your latter interpretation is the intended one.
If a writer is of any real worth, he will put the names of his stories into a hat, select them one by one, and place them in his short story collection in that order, thereby deferring the significance of the selection to the reader while leaving the writer to spend his time doing other things: namely, writing more short stories.
Not necessarily, it could be a sequential collection where each story takes place some years after the previous story in a shared world setting.
This is part of the problem with people assuming its a good idea to toss out pages randomly to reorder them, it ends up reading like crap no matter who the writer is.
An interesting article. What I’m surprised about, though, is that it does not touch upon the possibility that the reader might not read a collection in a linear fashion.
Say I have a set of tributes to a few well known stories. Is this worth putting at the end on principle? In the middle? Or just interspersed throughout? This is my first crack at a short story collection, so I’d be happy to hear any and all suggestions.
It really depends on how they relate to your other stories. It might be nice to group them together if the tributes are all obvious.
This was very helpful, thank you so much! It’s so hard to find advice that pertains solely to short story collections and this totally helped me rethink and improve the order of mine.
Excellent approach! Thanks so much for this. Really too bad more haven’t seen this.
This is the best advice I’ve ever read on compiling a collection of short stories. Thank you so much.