What’s in a Name?

I’ve been thinking about titles a lot lately. Sometimes titles are easy, they arrived gift-wrapped in a two-for-one package deal with the story’s inspiration. Other times, finding the right title feels like the hardest part of the writing process. I flail about wildly, throwing ideas at the story, and nothing sticks, until it reaches the point where I’m tempted to tear a dictionary to shreds, toss the shreds in the air, and string together the first five words I catch as they drift back down.

Lo and behold, just as I happened to be pondering titles, along comes this post on Shimmer’s blog. Five authors (Luc Reid, Krista Hoeppner Leahy, Don Mead, Justin Howe, and Vylar Kaftan) discuss how they choose titles for their work. Something Vylar Kaftan said in particular struck me: “Titles are like little advertisements for the story.”

Yes! It’s so simple, I don’t know why it never occurred to me before. I’ve often found myself browsing a list of stories and having time to read only one, so I pick the story with the title that intrigues me most. A memorable title doesn’t necessarily make for a memorable story, but it’s the first impression your story will make, so why not take the time to get it right? Once your story delivers on the title’s promise and impresses the reader, you want them to tell all their friends, don’t you? If your title is utterly forgettable, well, people are likely to forget it, no matter how much they enjoyed the story. “Oh, I just read the best story! It was called, ummm….” Congratulations, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

I’m guilty of choosing bad titles. Matthew? The story could be about anything. Teeth? There are probably about a billion other stories with the same name, give or take a few. Some titles I’m fairly proud of: Cloth from Flesh, Flesh from Bone, The Thief of Precious Things, Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew. They may not be I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but they’re a step in the right direction.

As with writing itself, there’s no secret formula for coming up with kick-ass titles that will stick in the reader’s mind. Many people will tell you one-word titles are a death sentence, and should be avoided at all cost, but there are exceptions to every rule. With longer titles, I’m frequently paranoid they’ll sound pretentious and over-wrought. The title needs to suit the story, too. If The Whimpering of Whipped Dogs had been a story about accounting, readers would have been mighty disappointed.

What about you? How do you come up with titles? Do you do it before the story is written? While you’re writing it? After the story is all polished and done? Do you sacrifice a black goat at midnight? Throw darts at a list of words scribbled on the wall?

Going forward, I’ve promised myself to take more care in my title-choosing. It may not be easy, but there’s no sense in throwing away my first chance to make a good impression. I promise: no dictionaries, or goats, will be harmed in the process.

3 Comments

Filed under Advice, Writing

3 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. cymry

    I hate choosing titles. I’m terrible at it – they always end up sounding cliched and awkward. I tend to use simple, descriptive work-in-progress titles and live with those for so long that the idea of actually giving something a proper name is alien and disturbing.

    That being said, there are a few short stories that have developed around a phrase or part of a phrase – in those cases, the title is obvious and simple and just plain RIGHT.

    If I ever decide to try to publish something, maybe I’ll just get you to pick all my titles. =p

  2. Heh. I have enough problems with my own titles. You seriously don’t want me trying to chose yours. Trust me! :)

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