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Make Titles Work Harder

A professor of mine once described the importance of a title with an anecdote: imagine you’ve dropped your paper on the ground and a stranger walks by, notices it, and only reads the title. Will they pick up the paper? Only if the title’s any good.

In his example, a title works like advertising, which is maybe why craft books avoid discussing them. Perhaps we’ve been jaded by clickbait titles, ones that promise fantastic drama but don’t deliver. Or maybe we’ve read too many novels with titles bearing little to do with the story itself (Naked Lunch, anyone?) and therefore think them all liars. Maybe professional writers are no more adept at titling than beginners are, or maybe they can’t explain how titles come to them, either. (Maybe, even, their editors title pieces for them, replacing “Draft 264” with something good. But everyone has to start somewhere, right?)

And, yet, titles are important, and many of my writer friends struggle with them, wanting to know how to spend less time debating and revising them, often landing on something ill-fitting they don’t like, simply because they’ve given up.

I don’t necessarily think of titles as advertising, though I do consider them a story’s first impression, hardly a tacked-on afterthought. The title is valuable real estate, available to develop a story’s complex layers and direct a reader to a specific idea or meaning. As an editor at 101 Words, I read countless pieces (only 101 words long, mind you) that used phrases from their short piece as their titles, essentially either repeating or summarizing their stories or giving away their ends. “Make your title work harder,” I often wrote back as advice. “Use the space!” Imagine you are limited to a certain number of words and given a few extra for the title. Given that scenario, you’d want to come up something good for that space, right?

I’m one of the lucky few writers who devises titles easily and readily (and hopefully expertly, as well, though I’m not claiming they’re all good), often writing a title first before drafting a single word of the body. Perhaps because my stories come from a single concept, like a type of character or situation, I title the piece around that concept and begin there. For example, I once heard a podcast about people turning to You Tube for advice about personal issues, like How to Keep a Marriage Alive, which I thought interesting. I titled my story, “How to Make Friends,” and wrote that story in instructional list form. Sometimes, I title a piece but later change it after realizing what the story is actually about. One of my stories was inspired by an increase in the sex-doll market during the pandemic. I titled that piece, “Life with Dolls,” which I later changed to “Simulating,” playing on the word “stimulating” while addressing the character’s need to simulate both sex and intimacy in lockdown.

Just because I start with a title doesn't mean I'm not willing to change it. If a title works as part of the story, it, too, is subject to revision. As an advertising copywriter (but, wait, I said titles weren’t advertising, right? I lied), I was tasked with making lists of hundreds of possible taglines and/or drug names before landing on one that worked. If you struggle with lightning-struck titles, you might try this tactic. Write down the first five titles that come to your mind, then consider that all five might be trite. Keep writing, exhausting the list. Choose the best three and tweak them.

Regardless of when you create your titles, you should consider the many ways they communicate to readers and editors. They convey genre, for example. Have you noticed that novels with the words “secret” or “lies” in them are typically thriller or women’s fiction? An entire decade went by with thrillers naming a “girl” in the title. Consider what promises your titles communicate and try to deliver on those promises.

Titles also convey focus, but more importantly develop secondary meanings. Titles can define, for example, setting (Where the Red Fern Grows), the central conflict (Crime and Punishment), the name of a character (Lolita), an epithet (The Vegetarian), a theme (Pride and Prejudice), a central image (Snow Falling on Cedars), its intrigue or starting point (One Last Thing Before I Go), or metaphor (Little Bee). In each of these examples, the title directs readers to that aspect’s importance to the story, but also work symbolically. Imagine if Lolita were called Humbert Humbert. Though the narrator Humbert goes on and on about his beloved Lolita, the novel’s namesake, the story itself is about Humbert’s psychopathy, so why title it Lolita? To reveal his obsession. Also, her name is less clunky, more alluring, drawing us into Humbert’s twisted psyche and his obsession with her. Or what if Where the Red Fern Grows was called Redbones after the dogs? Not bad, but where the red ferns grow is the boy’s home, and his remembering them there suggests his acceptance of fate, a much more powerful and multi-layered meaning. In these examples, the title refers to a central aspect of the story but also works to develop the overall meaning or effect of the story.

Though titles often have dual meanings, they shouldn’t be punny or overly clever, which can sound corny or overwrought. The best titles, rather, suggest the surface meaning of a word and then a secondary theme or meaning after the story has been read. For example, “The Good Girl,” about a girl who follows strict rules, might also reflect questions about what it means to be good, for example if she’s following rules despite their terrible consequences.

Finally, the best titles build intrigue and open up the story rather than give away the end or close it. This is not to say that Titanic should have been titled Life Boats or something. We all know how that movie ends, and its end is not the point (which is that their hubris led them to their own destruction, conveyed perfectly by Titanic). But, if you’re trying to keep people in suspense, don’t tell us the couple in your story makes up with a title like “The Reunion,” for example. In that situation, a conflict-catalyst title might be better, like what got them fighting to begin with. Or, a title that works as prologue or backstory, like Of Mice and Men, which is connected later but doesn’t give away the end, can create intrigue, as well.

If none of these works as a tactic for you, the best advice I can give is don’t waste the space. Make your title work as hard as your first line; give it all the conflict and tension every line must until the end.


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