Titling Stories: What’s in a Name?

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.

ImageThis admission of flattery-cum-theft, nefarious as it may seem, serves as the perfect introduction: I’m rubbish at titling things. Always have been. To prove it, here are some recent examples:

The Wall

The Reunion

The Decision

The Mission

The Intervention

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!

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8 thoughts on “Titling Stories: What’s in a Name?

  1. Oh god your tweet made me laugh so hard but I SUCK WITH NAMING STUFF TOO. Hence mine all end up with things like “Infinity” and “Misguided” (originally that was Misguided Trusts but mouthful). Someone needs to give us writers hints on how to make awesome titles. Hey! Maybe they should teach an entire subject about it. WP693 How to Write Engaging Titles and Not Suck. Wishful thinking hahaha.

  2. Glad I’m not alone! Hey, those titles aren’t bad. They at least suggest theme.

    It would be nice if titles were covered in a subject, yeah! Maybe I’ll put that suggest in the next feedback questionaire.

    (Hope no one expected me to segue into titleadvice with this post! Lovely thought, but I pretty much wrote it so others would go out in sympathy with me ;-))

  3. Great post. I think it’s a problem a lot of writers have. I’m certainly not immune. I’m trying to recall the names of finished pieces (there are so few), and there aren’t many highlights. The story you recently workshopped for me (thanks again for that!) has a generic working title — which I tend to do when something is just an idea, and a title hasn’t fallen out of the sky onto my head yet. I try to find a strong theme, element or concept from the story and write a few titles down before I settle on one.

    I know; easier said than done.

    (The title of one of my novels came to me as I was falling asleep one night, about five years after I came up with the actual novel concept. There was a Hollywood moment where I actually sat “bolt upright” and scrambled to find pen and paper before the title disappear into the abyss. I’m so attached to the title now, I can’t believe I called it anything else.)

    Sometimes a simple title works, though. If it defines the story well, then don’t fight it. I personally thought ‘The Wall’ has a kind of mystery and formidable feeling about it — which actually suits the story.

    It could be the article that’s making it seem generic. ‘The Warm Embrace’ could be ‘Her Warm Embrace’ — instantly has a different tone, doesn’t it? I don’t know; I’m just thinking aloud.

    Don’t beat yourself up. As for finding an approach for titling new works, why not have a handful of people read the finished piece and suggest a title each? Sometimes the people who can see it (the story) for what it is, not what you *intended* for it to be, are the ones who can capture its essence in a more memorable way.

    Happy writing,

    V

    • ‘Stroke’ is cool. I feel it captures the pulse of that story. ‘The Penthouse’ was effective in the same way you complemented ‘The Wall’ (thanks for that, by the way!).

      That’s interesting about your late-night inspiration. Which novel was this? Not that we can control it, but it’s always great when ideas come organically like this. It can feel somehow disingenuous coming to the perfect line or title through trial and error, or through exercises. Where’s the romance 😛

      ‘The Warm Embrace’ is so-called because it’s the direct translation of the name of the French restaurant. (Well, it better be! The internet said so, and Isabelle verified it for me!) At the time, I thought that a fitting, even clever title, but now I don’t think it really captures the ethos of the story. Your example, though, is spot on. Amazing how changing one word in the title can totally repurpose a story.

      Thanks for commenting. Glad I’m not alone in this!

  4. I usually pick up a catchy phrase from my story, and make that my title.

    Just wanted to thank you for dropping by my blog post on bloggy friends– I’m thinking of starting a small community of bloggers for mutual support– blog events, group activities etc. Would you like to join in?

    • No problem! Though I seldom comment, I always enjoy reading your posts. Sounds like fun; I’m definitely interested. Thanks for the thought. Just a heads-up, though: my internet access can be a bit sporadic! I look forward to more details when you have them.

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