I couldn’t title this post, so was reduced to pilfering third-hand Shakespeare. (More like what’s in a lame, right?) My thanks must then go to the thousand-odd suckers before me who’ve riffed on the romantic old clod’s work and thought themselves clever. Oh, for how, were it not for aping Shakespeare, would we title our movies, blogs, or shitty, small-time newspaper articles? That is the question.
The New Caretaker
The Train Ride
The Warm Embrace
The Final Note
(Going back a bit further, I also have ‘The Coin’, a story about political strife in Uganda. Jokes. It’s about a coin.)
At the time, I rationalised the sheer uninventiveness by proclaiming these titles Kafkaesque. (As in, they sounded similar to Kafka’s titles; not that they were surreal or interesting.)
Some, like ‘The Intervention’ and maybe ‘The New Caretaker’, are faintly interesting because they evoke questions. But what, if anything, is ‘The Wall’ meant to evoke? Going through the thousands of online short stories, why would anyone click to read ‘The Train Ride’? That story, which I’m otherwise proud of, sells itself short from the get-go. I should retitle it, but honestly don’t have anything better. My justification? It’s serviceable, and so nondescript that it, at least, couldn’t possibly cause offence. If it doesn’t make a statement, it won’t embarrass me, (ignoring that its blandness is utterly humiliating).
I exaggerated before when I said I’ve always sucked at titles. I recall a prolific period in my late teens when a bit of lateral thinking birthed some quirky-titled poetry. I was into wordplay back then, (have since realised it sucks), and enjoyed seeing language bend under the sheer weight of my cleverness. There was no pressure then, mind; the poems were stream of consciousness nonsense, written without publication in mind.
Things are different now; I write with purpose, or try to. Coming up with the perfect title is daunting, but critical. The market has gotten so competitive. First sentences are important, but mean nothing if you can’t hook a reader in the first place. Shock value works, but can be seen as cheap. When I was slush pile reading for a journal, I loved memorable titles; they engaged me, positioned me to be receptive. (Slush pile readers should always be receptive, but a streak – or onslaught – of bad stories will inevitably dampen enthusiasm.)
I’ve read there are exercises designed to coax wonder titles out from the mind’s cobwebby shadows. Combing through a story looking for obvious themes or recurring phrases (preferably significant ones) is one such exercise. That’s common sense, though – of course I’d pluck out a perfectly resonant title if it was already apparent in the text. Unfortunately, perfect titles aren’t kittens mewing to be rescued from the RSPCA. In my experience (suspend belief here), they come on whims; you can’t actively search them out.
Sometimes titles, or general phrases, spur on whole stories themselves. It’s wonderful when this happens; it means the title will inform the story, rather than the other way around. Retroactively titling a near-finalised piece is a good way to drive yourself mad. I’ve taken to using working titles to counter this. That way there’s one less thing for me to fret about.
How do you guys come up with titles? Do you have a formal process? Or do titles naturally come to you while considering things like plot, pacing and character?
Any titles you’re especially proud of? Share any favourites!