What’s in a Name?

Titles are often the hardest part of writing a story for me. That, and character names, though those are slightly easier what with lists of names and their meanings easily available on the internet. Unfortunately, there’s no handy list of story titles, or if there is, it’s probably best avoided. Naming a story is every bit as personal and important as naming a character. You want it to stick out; you want it to be remembered.

Once upon a time, I used to settle for the first title that came to mind, which frequently meant using something generic. Even though it seems obvious now, it took reading something another author wrote (sadly I don’t remember who) to make me realize how important titles are. It’s your first chance to make a good impression and, perhaps more importantly, it’s your chance to leave a lasting impression. After all, you don’t want the name of your awesome story slipping a reader’s mind before they have a chance to recommend it to a friend, or being confused for some other less awesome story with the same generic name.

The subject was brought to mind again recently by something author and editor Michael Matheson wrote:

“Your title tells me how to approach your story. It sets mood and tone, and (usually more than you think it does) tells me what you were trying to do with your story.”

It drove home the importance of titles for me all over again.

These days, I agonize over titles. Every now and then, one will come to mind fully formed, but more often than not, it’s a struggle and the title will remain a blank space through several rounds of the story’s revisions. Frequently, I’ll resort to begging my critique group for suggestions. Occasionally, I’ll be tempted to go with: Fuck It, Here’s a Story. But since I can’t name them all that, I’ve been known to steal lines of poetry, song lyrics, and the titles of paintings. Of course, not any series of striking words elegantly arranged will do. As Matheson says, the title should set the mood for your piece and give the reader a taste of what’s in store.

Now that I’m the editorial side of things as well as the authorial side, I have to admit, a good title will get me to sit up and take notice. Obviously, it won’t sell a story on its own, but as I said – it’s an author’s first chance to make a good impression. Although it’s an unfair example, with our recent reading period for the Unlikely Acceptances Issue, there were certain stories we wanted to take on the strength of their terrible titles alone, so much so we had to create a whole list of (dis)honorable mentions just to, um, honor them. Like I said, it’s a somewhat unfair example, but it does help make my point.

As a better example, I’ll let some of my favorite recent story titles speak for themselves: His Sweet Truffle of a Girl by Camille Alexa; If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky; Selkie Stories Are for Losers by Sofia Samatar; In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind by Sarah Pinsker; Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream by Maria Dahvana Headley; and The Sea Half-Held by Night by E. Catherine Tobler.

Each is memorable and poetic in its own way, and conveys something about the story. In some instances, the titles set the story’s tone; in others, they set expectations for the story to beautifully shatter. So, you see, titles are important. Which is part of the reason finding one can be so goddamned hard. So, where do you get your titles from?

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3 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. I love this, given that I’m wrestling with a title for the piece I wrote today. Sometimes it’s a line from the story itself, sometimes it’s a line from a poem, as with The Sea Half-Held by Night–that’s from Leaves of Grass: “I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;/I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.”

    • Somehow, finding titles never seems to get easier. Yours are always lovely, though. Walt Whitman poems do seem to be a good source for borrowing/stealing. I just took one from him myself.

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