Monday, February 17, 2014

Story Titles

Imagine yourself at Barnes & Noble.  How do you browse for books?

Cover art?  Most books aren't shelved with the cover facing you.

Blurb?  No books are shelved so you can easily browse the back-cover or inside-cover blurb.

What faces you first is the title.

And that's what I see first, too.

Am I going to be excited about reading a story titled 'Boring'?  

To tell you the truth, I might be just a little intrigued by that title.  It might lead me to wonder--nay, hope--that the story will be anything but boring.

So let's take a look at some of my favorite titles from the pages of Flash Fiction Online and how they might have been less appealing:


"Driving My Post Partum Depressed Wife to the Mountains"

The first title, hopefully you recognize, is the real one.  But it's not what the story is about.  The second title tells me what the story is about, but it doesn't make me want to read the story.  

How about:


"Granny and Her Microwave"



"I Was a Robot Bride"

So why don't we take a look at what makes these titles successful, eye-catching, editor-appealing.

Sparks:  What kind of sparks am I talking about?  The kind of sparks that get my imagination working.  That first title, "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe," even though it has very little to do with what the story is actually about, puts an immediate mental image into my head.  I'm imagining an aging James Brown, his thick hair still piled high in that ridiculous pompadour, his shirt unbottoned to his enormous old-man belly, his chains getting tangled in his exposed, graying chest hair, crossing the street with his wheeled laundry basket in tow.  Maybe he has a cigarette dangling from his lip.  Maybe his boots are unlaced as he shuffles aimlessly over the blacktop.  A cross between the classic rocker we all recognize from "I Feel Good" and the proto-bag-lady who seems to grace every laundromat in the universe.

But the author does something else important.  As she opens the story she places me immediately in a place from which I might just catch a glimpse of someone who looks like it just might be James Brown heading for the laundromat--a car driven by an over-tired new father.  She also ties that title neatly into the story.  You'll have to read the story to see how.  But that's important.  I shouldn't get to the end of your story and wonder what in the heck the title had to do with anything.

Not Your Run of the Mill:  Irma Splinkbottom.  Holy cow, what a name.  When I first read this title I prayed fervently that the story would be as good as the title.  It was.  We bought it and published it in 2009.  What this tells you is a lot of things.  

First, a great title will catch any editor's attention.  A boring title won't.  Choose carefully.  Put as much thought into that title as you do to your opening paragraph.

Second, a great title alone won't sell your story.  That fervent prayer wasn't for nothing.  I've read hundreds of stories with imagination-catching titles in which the story just didn't cut the mustard.  So many, in fact, that the prayer was needed.  And this time it worked.

Third, title can say a lot about what might be expected from your story.  This title gave me to expect humor, which is what Irma delivered.  Be careful that you don't become so concerned with writing an imaginative title that you lose sight of the fact that it's saying something about your story.  Make sure that what it's saying matches what the story says.  I don't want a title that takes me to the Bahamas only to find the story takes me to Antarctica.

Fourth, putting something peculiar in the title, like Irma Splinkbottom or the irony of an old lady name along with 'cold fusion', can be definitely imaginatively engaging.  Be careful how you use unusual, though.  Unusual can mean just about anything.  Make sure your title aims for the right kind of unusual.  For instance, I recently had a story titled "Past Perfect/Future Tense" in my slush pile.  While to grammarians it's merely grammatical terms, an editor/writer like me will look at that and say, 'Hmm.  This story is probably about more than grammar."  Which then gets me thinking about that title.  Past Perfect.  Future Tense.  The past is perfect.  The future is tense.  I now feel as if I'm looking through a window into the soul of this story and hoping for great things done with strong, empathetic characters.

Language Is Beautiful:  It really is.  We often hear people say how difficult the English language is to learn--all the exceptions to the rules, all the exceptions to the exceptions.  It's a mongrel of a language, that's for sure.  But that mongrel has given the world a language with an enormous diversity of words--more diverse than any other Earth language--which, according to one source, is approaching a vocabulary of one million words and which is constantly adopting words from every potential source.  

No other language offers the writer a larger pool of words from which to draw in order to express himself with such great accuracy or fluency or grace.  There is no excuse for any writer to thunk down a string of graceless words and call it a title, when so much meaning and poetry can be had with even a single well-chosen word.

Take a look at "Gathering Rosebuds of Rust."  All those lovely Rs--alliteration.  The exact same thing could be told using entirely different words, but it certainly wouldn't have the same flavor.  For example: "Picking Rusty Metal Flowers" or "Putting Rusted Roses in My Basket."

As an exercise, write a title for a story you're working on or have recently completed.  Have your critique group or members of your writer's forum read the title and answer the following questions:

Do you like the title?  Why?
What do you think this story is about?
What kind or genre of story do you expect it to be?  
What emotional vibe do you expect the story to have?

If the answers you receive don't jive at all with the story you've written you probably want to rethink that title.  

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