A Title is Worth a Thousand Words

When I was an undergraduate student in my first fiction writing workshop, there was a day when we had a very lengthy discussion about titling stories. Everyone had their own opinions about what made a good title, none of which particularly stood out to me, but I do remember the advice the instructor gave. She said if you were having a hard time coming up with a title, it was always a good idea to combine a color and an object or animal, and call it a day. Her examples were things like “Blue Cat” and “Grey Tiger.”

I remember at the time thinking about what absolutely terrible advice that was. I never used it, and you shouldn’t either.

Titles are tough. When I first started really writing I was terrified of titles because I know I’m one of those people who judges a book or story by its title (and cover). If your title doesn’t grab me, I might not give it a fair chance. It’s not necessarily very high brow of me, but it’s true.

Over the years I’ve become better with titles, mostly through trial and error. I tend to look for titles within the dialogue my characters exchange, or I come up with a title before I even start a story, which is the same tactic poet Stephen S. Mills, author of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, uses.

Mills says, “For me titles are often a starting point, so they are often what I come up with first. In poetry, I like the title to work as the setup for the poem. The title can give the reader a lot of the basic information of the poem, so then the poem can go in different directions. Titles also work as a great way to pull a reader in and make them want to read your work. When thinking about publication that can be important.”

I notice that a lot of students try to title their work after their protagonist, but this is usually only successful if the protagonist has a more unusual name. If you title your story “Daniel” or “Ben,” you’re unlikely to catch anyone’s attention.

Unless your story is about a rat named Ben, in which case you have copyright infringement to worry about.

If you have a character with a more unusual name, though, like Toni Morrison’s Sula or Vladamir Nobokov’s Lolita, you might garner some interest.

In classic novels, titles often have literal and symbolic connections. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of using symbolism and thematic elements in a title. In the story, mockingbirds are explained as a representation of innocence, and to kill one would be to kill innocence. At one point in the novel, Ms. Maudie explains to Scout that “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Several other references are made to killing or shooting mockingbirds in the story, and it all plays off that idea of killing the innocent, which is central to the plot of the novel.

Some of my favorite short stories to teach offer great examples of using character dialogue for titles. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, Jig explains to the American that the hills of the Ebro look like white elephants; the mention of hills like white elephants works as a symbol for the subject matter, but also serves as an enticing title for the story. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor,” Red Sammy says to the grandmother, “A good man is hard to find. Everything is getting terrible,” when discussing the rise in criminal activity in their communities. The notion of “a good man” comes into play again later in the story when the grandmother is faced with the Misfit. If you ever have a character say something especially poignant, you can consider using it as a title, especially if you can work the line into a theme or symbol for the rest of the story.

While many writers feel the need to have a title before they even start writing, others can only develop titles once the meat of the project has been completed. Holly V. Kapherr, an Orlando-based food writer, editor for Babytalk magazine, and author of When the Meat Falls Off the Bone: A Culinary Memoir of Cultural Clash, says of titles: “It’s easy to underestimate the importance of a title, since it’s usually the last thing you write after finishing a story, but it’s the first impression you leave on your reader. A title should encompass everything about your story – emotionally, conceptually, thematically – in just a few words. In a creative work, I’ll identify an image I’ve written about, a symbol I’ve pointed out, or a nice turn of phrase I’ve written that encapsulates the emotion and theme. It’s your story, boiled down to its essence.”

As you can see, coming up with a title is something that you should take as seriously as you do writing the actual story or poem. A title should give your reader an idea of what he or she might be getting into, even if what that is isn’t apparent until the end of the story.

How do you come up with titles? Do you consider titles to be as important as story content, or do you just slap something at the top of the page and hope for the best? What are your favorite books, movies, stories, etc. that drew you in on title alone?

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About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jaclynmsullivan I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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