This is the second column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. The first column, and the entirety of his Short-Short Sighted columns (dedicated to writing very short fiction), visit his author page.
Titles are hard. They have to accomplish a lot in a few words. The ideal title will attract the reader who has a variety of stories to choose from, will grab the reader by the collar and say, “Hey! You! Yes, you! Here is exactly the sort of story you love!” It will identify the genre. It will begin to establish the literary contract with the reader about the likely pleasures of the story and the rules of the story’s telling. It will frame or control how the reader sees some elements of the story. When the story is over, the ideal title will help the reader to think more deeply about the story and might give the reader one of those “Aha!” moments of realizing that the reader’s first understanding of what the title referred to has been turned upside down. The ideal title will help the reader to remember the story and recommend it to others, and it will help those other readers to remember the recommendation and find the story.
That’s a tall order. Indeed, it’s a nearly impossible. I don’t know of very many titles that manage to do everything that that a great title can do, but a title that doesn’t do at least some of them is not serving its story very well. Here are some suggestions for creating a good title, beginning with the most important suggestion: Try.
I know from reading student stories, from judging contests, from reading unsolicited magazine manuscripts, that a surprising number of writers don’t try, or at least don’t try very hard. Perhaps we can blame the reading comprehension questions in standardized tests. “Which of the following would be the best title for the passage above?” The answer is always the title that most comprehensively names the central subject of the passage: “Memories of Grandpa Joe,” “A Snowy Day,” “The Price of Coffee.” And for students who are just learning how to write a few paragraphs that stay on topic, this kind of title can serve as a navigation beacon: If you’re supposed to be writing about Grandpa Joe, then that funny story about Grandma Gracie may need to wait for next week’s writing assignment.
Indeed, a title that serves as a lighthouse may be of use to even the most sophisticated writer. A “working title” is often exactly that, a way for the writer to remind herself of the idea or enthusiasm that got the story started. It helps the writer to keep the main idea before her, to make some decisions about what does or does not belong in the story. However, those three example titles are, for most readers, boring, and not only because they simply name a subject. They are boring because they are very much like the titles of school assignments or the earnest efforts of the rankest beginning writers. That is, they remind the reader of painfully boring writing that the reader has had to endure in the past. Like a good title, they are naming the genre of the piece that follows them, but that genre is, unfortunately, Torture By Literature.
Allow me to pause here and apologize to Grandpa Joe, to backyard meteorologists, to traders of coffee futures. I’m sure that there are some for whom “Memories of Grandpa Joe,” “A Snowy Day,” and “The Price of Coffee” are alluring titles. Let me also disabuse my readers of the advice I have sometimes heard that a title like one of these is the kiss of death for a story. It isn’t. No editor worthy of a blue pencil is going to look at the title of a piece and reject it without reading another word. A title that looks like the beginning of a terrible story can sometimes be a clever move on the part of the writer, promising a story so mundane that the reader has to look at the first sentence to see if the story really is as awful as advertised. That first sentence could be brilliant. It could lead to a brilliant second sentence, and to the realization that the title is being used with a sense of irony, that the story pretending to be a school assignment is actually playing with that expectation.
Editors know this. Editors also know that titles are hard, that some writers never manage to come up with good ones. So an editor who thinks that a title is awful will read at least a few sentences, meaning that a bad title is not really the kiss of death. It is, however, the kiss of contagious disease. The editor will read those opening sentences while wearing gloves and holding the manuscript at a safe distance, expecting to verify that the manuscript should be returned from whence it came. It’s hard to overcome such a first impression.
Before we move on from these examples, I should point out that a title that simply names its subject can be a good title, in spite of all I have said, if the subject is inherently interesting and dramatic. If Grandpa Joe were Joseph Stalin, then “Memories of Grandpa Stalin” could draw readers. Part of the problem of “A Snowy Day” is that it offers one snowy day among a lifetime of days with snow. Why will this one be of interest? However, “Snow Day” is a good title because it refers to a special kind of snowy day in which the normal routines of life are suspended. That’s already a promising start to a story: the things that usually happen are not going to happen on the day of this story.
My second suggestion for writing good titles is to prioritize. The two most important tasks of a title are the same as the tasks of literary illustration: to draw the reader in and to make an apt promise.
I think the first part of this is obvious enough. The reader might be drawn in by dramatic subject matter named in the title, or by a mystery or contradiction, or by language that promises that the writer is good with words and can be relied upon to tell a good story. The apt promise is a little less obvious.
Years ago, I was one of a group of new writers seeing for the first time the illustrations that a group of new artists had made for our stories. The stories and art were going to be published together in an anthology, and a couple of the writers started to complain about their illustrations. The art did not depict any scene that actually took place in the story. The art director who had been overseeing the artists heard this and gave us writers an impromptu lecture about illustration. Most of the time, the purpose of illustration is not to show the reader what happens in the story. The illustration is, instead, a lure. It doesn’t matter whether the illustration is on the cover of a book or on the first page of a story. Its purpose is to tell the reader what kind of a narrative this is (western? SF? literary?) and to intrigue. The illustration should be sexy, dramatic, subtle, or whatever will best advertise the fiction. Once the reader finishes the story, the reader won’t usually judge the illustration by whether it depicted a scene from the story, but by whether the story fulfilled the genre and tone of the art.
The title pulls the reader in. Then the story delivers on the title.
Readers are harder on titles than they are on illustrations. When the story is over, they will forgive an illustration that didn’t picture the characters the way the reader did, for instance. Everyone knows that the writer didn’t create any illustrations, didn’t design the cover of the book. But the writer did choose (or approve) the title, and so the reader will be irritated if the story failed to live up to it.
A story can do all the things that I listed in the opening paragraph, but if it doesn’t pull the reader in and then seem apt at the end of the story, it’s not a good title.
Next month: Take this theory and practice it!
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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