The Quest for the Perfect Title

I’m into writing short fiction. It’s a fairly new hobby of mine, so I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. As with blogging, it is a field I’ve entered carrying this huge rucksack full of Beginner’s Mistakes. Once I run out of those, I’ll hopefully have enough steam left for some Intermediate Mistakes.

After writing for something like eight months, I finally took the time and concentrated on titles. Up till now, the process has been roughly the following: Draft a story, agonize over the tiny details, agonize even more, and when I’m finally finished, go: “Sod it. I’ve no title. Well, I’ll just call it… (Insert the first or second thing off the top of my head).” Lazy? I should say so. Especially considering all the effort that went into coming up with the actual story.

The title is the first thing a reader encounters. I’ve noticed it well enough myself, browsing through online flash fiction sites. Some titles grab your attention and make you read the story. Others you just skim past, either because the genre sounds wrong, or because there’s nothing there to pique your interest.

I think the difficulty with coming up with a good title has to do with the fact that the title is not exactly OF the story. They are joined together, of course, but the story is different from the title on some fundamental level. If the story’s a house, the title’s the door to that house. It can be silly like the door to a funhouse, or bear a sign reading “This way to the funeral reception” or be creaky and forbidding. But it’s a door that is always ajar. It says, come in, come in! There’s something you’ll want to see.

In my hunt for the perfect title, I found this gem of an article:

There are actually two parts to it, but the second part is where the gold is. Really, it’s very simple. Look at good titles those before you (who are perhaps onto the Advanced Mistakes Pack) have invented. Don’t copy them outright, obviously, but use the formula they are based on. Doing this, I immediately did away with the empty head I usually have in this respect. I came up with dozens of titles, all decent ones. Perhaps not great, but decent.

Some simple title formulas (mostly from the above article, but some my own):

  1. A simple statement can work, if it grips the reader, and reflects the book’s content well enough. We Need to Talk About Kevin. That title made me grab the book right off the shelf at my local library. I didn’t know why we needed to talk about Kevin, but it seemed important.
  2. Use an adjective or if you’re very brave, even an adverb (gasp!): The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Secret Garden, The Edible Woman, Love Actually. 
  3. Use a metaphor or a simile. Cat Among the Pigeons, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Raging Bull. This seems to work particularly well with animals.
  4. Surprise your reader with some wordplay. They love it in the actual story, they’ll love it in the title. I Still Miss My Man, but My Aim is Getting Better. The Man Who Fell to Earth. This could be a risky strategy, though, and it doesn’t fit any story.
  5. Use the –ing ending. Some examples: Saving Private Ryan, Riding in Cars with Boys, Leaving Las Vegas.  But careful: You can easily overdo this.
  6. Use your protagonist’s name if it’s memorable enough: Forrest Gump, Madame Bovary, Hannibal.
  7. Take an expression or a proverb and either tweak it, only use a part, or even the whole thing: Lost in Translation, One Two Buckle My Shoe, Catch Me if You Can
  8. Use a question that’s not necessarily a question: What Maisie Knew, Where the Wild Things Are, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
  9. Simplicity: The Maids. Atonement. The Hangover. King’s Speech. All of these express in one or two words the gist of the story.
  10. Use a Quote. A good one. There Will Be Blood, Evil Under the Sun. As you can see, Bible is a good’un for a bit of drama.
  11. Throw together something weird and intriguing that the reader won’t make any sense of first, but make sure he or she will make at least some sense of it once the story’s read: Naked Lunch, Clockwork Orange, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
  12. Use a place. 22 Jump Street, Shutter Island, Casablanca. Again, it needs to be memorable and specific. “A Town” won’t be your ideal starting place.
  13. If you’re still stumped, end it with the word “now”. Apocalypse Now. Look Who’s Talking Now. Just kidding, now.
  14. Some things just sound great: Blue Velvet, Tender Is the Night, A River Runs Through It. Think on the lines of poetry. Take your best sentence and snip the pretty words out.

Obviously, there are no rules, and these shouldn’t be considered such. They’re only some formulas that i found useful when trying to come up with some ideas. It states in the above-mentioned article that you can name your work “My Summer Holiday” if you make it work. You can do anything, as long as it works.

That’s the beauty of fiction.


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