Intro & Part I: Choreography
Part 2: Dialogue
Part 3: Structure
Part 4: Perspective
Part 5: Titles
Choosing a title can be very difficult for some people, while others find them easily. I've always thought of my stories and their titles as innately tied somehow, as if they had both existed together always, only to be discovered by me in some fumbling gesture. Needless to say titles are immensely important, whether you think you've got the knack or not; they advertise your work as well as summarize it and categorize it, so they have to be both immediatley interesting and retrospectively meaningful. There's power in a good title to say everything about a work and more, to put a finger on the fine, subtle threads that tie the story together as a cohesive text. It's the first (or final) glance at the forest itself, bracketing your reader's journey into the trees.
A Story's Title
How the hell are you? What do you think of Men Without Women as a title? I could get no title, Fitz, run through Ecclesiastics though I did. Perkins, perhaps you’ve met him, wanted a title for the book. Perkin’s an odd chap, I thought, what a quaint conceit! He wants a title for the book. Oddly enough he did. So I, being in Gstaad at the time went around to all the book stores trying to buy a bible to get a title. But all the sons of bitches had to sell were little carved brown wood bears. So for a time I thought of dubbing the book The Little Carved Wood Bear and then listening to critics explanations. Fortunately, there happened to be a church of England clergyman in town who was leaving the next day and Pauline borrowed a Bible off him after promising to return it that night because it was the Bible he was ordained with. Well, Fitz, I looked through that Bible, it was all in very fine print and stumbling on that great book Ecclesiastics, read it aloud to all who would listen. Soon I was alone and began cursing the bloody bible because there were no titles in it -- although I found the source of practically every good title you ever heard of. But the boys, principally Kipling, had been there before me and swiped all the good ones so I called the book Men Without Women hoping it would have a large sale among the fairies and old Vassar Girls.
This note in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald shows us, however unsuccesful Hemingway was in this case, one of the best and safest resources for selecting a title with gravitas - canon itself. Referential titles can swing from the mundane and basic (but reliable) appropriation of a common turn of phrase (In Cold Blood
, or A Wild Sheep Chase
) to specific call-outs to relevant and influencial literary predecessors (Norwegian Wood
). The former can be good because phraseology like this has often grown to encompass quite vast but specific concepts - notions or situations that could otherwise be tricky to articulate simply, but to most idle readers will be immediately recognizable. But if you value the poetry of words at all, and seek to excite your readers with language, such well-trod ground might be a massive turn-off. Likewise, standing on the shoulders of literary giants by referencing them in your title can present complex themes and tones to your readers, but the danger is double-edged - you risk confusing and ostracising readers who don't 'get' the reference, while for knowing readers you've asked to be judged alongside the greats.
Of course, you don't have to be referential at all in a title - a single word can often suffice, or the name of a character or place. But if you're too obvious in describing the events or subject you lose what can be the title's most important purpose - its mystery. There's a compulsion to understand a title, know what it really means, really
, and if there's no subtlety in your use of it then you're sacrificing a big drive for the reader. So if you're using a character's name it might work best to use one whose importance, while central, plays out slowly - as part of a developing relationship, say, rather than the biographical focus. And if you're just using a plain old verb or noun it can't be too literal a description of the action or actors. Simple things are most powerful when they have had time to sneak in unnoticed.
Title as Story
Anybody who knows me will know what a big thrill it is for me to be here to introduce this band tonight. I've been a very, very great fan of Gary Brooker and Procol Harum ever since nearly thirty years ago when they suddenly surprised the world by leaping absolutely out of nowhere with one of the biggest hit records ever done by anybody at all ever under any circumstances. They then surprised the world even more by suddenly turning out to be from Southend and not from Detroit as everybody thought.
Now they had one very very particular effect on my life. It was a song they did, which I expect some of you here will know, called 'Grand Hotel'. Whenever I'm writing I tend to have music on in the background, and on this particular occasion I had 'Grand Hotel' on the record player. This song always used to interest me because while Keith Reid's lyrics were all about this sort of beautiful hotel - the silver, the chandeliers, all those kind of things, but then suddenly in the middle of the song there was this huge orchestral climax that came out of nowhere and didn't seem to be about anything. I kept wondering what was this huge thing happening in the background? And I eventually thought ... it sounds as if there ought to be some sort of floorshow going on. Something huge and extraordinary, like, well, like the end of the universe.
Sometimes a story and its title come together before anything else. You can't rely on that happening always, and even when it does, the story might well grow beyond the scope of that original title anyway. Or worse, you could ultimately suffocate your work if you're railroading it to suit a pre-made title.
Nevertheless, having a title in mind from the get-go can benefit a story greatly. Much like the drive of a reader to understand it, it can give the author the drive to create it
- you'll always want to do justice to a good enough title. Beyond that, it can also promote layered writing. Having one key image or reference to anchor a story means you can mine it for all its meanings, and implement it on many levels. A book called, say, Blackwater
instantly gives both the name for part of the setting (a river, the Blackwater) and a dark, brooding tone. It can be employed as a lingual motif - 'the black waters' - and as the fate of the characters (A drowning death, of course). It can give you a lot to work with very early on - and the more you know about a story you're writing, the better it will be.
Excercise - Title Tennis
This should be fun! I'll start with a brief synopsis, and the next participating poster will come up with a title for it. The next
player will create an entirely different synopsis (a couple of sentences is plenty) based on that title - and the game goes on. Try not to play it for jokes too much - it'd want to be a title you'd actually put on a story you'd written yourself. And don't sweat too much over the synopses. You can borrow (as liberally as you like) from books you've read recently or movies you've seen, if it fits. Oh, and when coming up with titles, don't be scared to be a bit creative. Even try to come up with something that adds a whole extra slant to what the story would be - something that could support the described narrative in a unique way, and make it something more.
A mentally ill man is detained in an asylum after a violent attack on a police officer, claiming he's from another world. A kind-hearted nurse connects with him, but is ultimately wracked with guilt and heartbroken when she realises his sanity has been lost for good.
Titles can be hard work. Any other ideas on how to find good ones?