Clever Title Goes Here

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on the nuts and bolts of writing, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Today’s topic, inspired by recent struggles, is: Titles.

On the surface, titles seem simple, right? Come up with a few words that describe the story, slap it on the top and that’s that. But a lot of writers have a surprisingly hard time coming up with titles. For my own part, either I’ll know the title from almost before I put the first word on the page, or I’ll be still agonizing over it months after I finish the story. There is no in-between.

Yet despite the headache that titles can be, they don’t get much discussion time on writing podcasts and blogs. I suppose there are more complicated issues of storytelling to be discussed, which is true… but despite being an outwardly simple topic, titles are incredibly important. After all, the title will be what gives any potential reader their first impression of your story.

This is particularly true for short stories– with a novel, the cover art may fill that role, but for short stories (and many novels as well), the title will almost certainly be the first thing the reader notices. A catchy title can make the difference between a potential reader and an actual one. It’s the first, best advertising for your story.

Yet advertising isn’t all a title is, either. A good title can, in some cases, be what ties the story together. Title can be short and catchy, or long and poetic; they can set up a mystery that hooks the reader; they can make the reader laugh; they can be a metaphor that sums up the entire story in a few words; they can use language to craft an image that the reader simply must know more about. If the title ties in to the end of the story, it can create that satisfying “loop” that’s so important for short stories. But a title doesn’t need to be all of those things; in fact, some of those things are inherently contradictory.

The story that got me thinking about this was a 5,000 word science fiction short story that I’ve been doing some final rounds of editing on. As a general rule, I prefer short and catchy titles. The working title of my novel, In a Land of Wind and Sky, is an exception because I like the poeticalness of it. (Is “poeticalness” a word? If not, it is now.) As for the short story in question, here are some titles I’ve gone through:

Family Tree: Short, but not very inspired. It does tie together the main metaphor in the story (the story revolves around the main character’s niece, who’s a botanist), but it probably doesn’t make anyone go, “oooh, I want to know what that story’s about!”
The Gatebuilders’ Daughter: I like the rhythm of the words here, and there’s a little more mystery in the title (who is it referring to, and are the gatebuilders?), but the phrase “the gatebuilders’ daughter” is actually used on the second page of the story. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of titles which are literal lines in the story– although opinions will certainly differ on this.
Memories of Persei: More evocative, although any mystery it has is lost by the fourth line of the story, in which in becomes clear that the main character is reminiscing about the years she spent at a place called Persei. Also, on first reading, the word “Persei” takes a second to figure out how to pronounce– as a result, that may lessen the title’s impact.
The Girl Who Planted Seeds: This is the title I’m going with right now. It works on a literal and metaphorical level, it has rhythm, it flows easily off the tongue, and hopefully has a little bit of mystery to it as well. Admittedly, there’s nothing about it that screams “science fiction”, but if it appears in a science fiction magazine (fingers crossed), that’ll hopefully take care of any need to broadcast the genre in the title.

For short stories in particular, I suspect that a good title, if it’s intriguing and retains its mystery well into the story, can be one factor that keeps an editor reading, especially if they’re in the middle of going through a huge slush pile and are sort of looking for reasons to move to the next story. Is this actually true? I’d be interested to know… I’ll have to ask some editors next time I’m at a con.

Of course, an awesome title also sets the readers’ expectations for the story higher, and if the title is more awesome than the rest of the story, or if the story does not live up to the title’s promise in some other way (for example, if the title is funny but the story isn’t), then the reader will feel let down. In short, come up with an awesome title if you can, but make sure your story is even awesomer. (I’m making up all sort of words today.) And whatever you promise in the title, make sure the story delivers it.

Do you have any favorite book titles? Maybe a title that made you laugh, or evoked an image that you just needed to know more about? What do you look for when you’re reading and writing story titles?