Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 13 - Titles for your stories

Public Radio International recently ran a story about a literary hoax — Naked Came the Stranger. The broadcast related how about two dozen Newsday writers came together to create a sexy bestseller. It was interesting, in many ways, but a remark on how the title came to be — taking two words, "stranger" and "naked," from other bestseller titles — got me thinking.

What does make a good title? Certainly, grabbing words from works that are popular in your genre is a pretty good strategy from a sales point of view. It's great to play off of positive associations, as long as you don't disappoint your public... If there are cannibals in your title, there better be cannibals in your story. Unless the title is being used ironically (which is a risky practice).

The safest bet is to come up with something that tells people what the story is about. With Star Wars, you knew going in that you'd be watching a science fiction movie and that it would include battles in space. The original audience might not have known that Night of the Living Dead was about zombies, but only the clueless would have expected anything other than a horror movie. Speaking of Clueless, it had to be a comedy, right?
Some titles just sound wonderful. I don't think it's a coincidence that To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, and A Tale of Two Cities are among my favorite works, ones that I've read and reread over the years. A title that sounds good and is immediately appealing promises, at the very least, above-average prose. In many cases, it seems to indicate that the author and I will be simpatico.

Just  to get past knowing too much about the story, I looked at the list of the New York Times Notable Books for 2015. Here are some wonderful titles that would tempt me to check out the books:

City on Fire

Dragon Fish

The First Bad Man

Preparation for the Next Life

The Sellout

Thirteen Ways of Looking

The Visiting Privilege

These are two or three key words each, and many of them raise questions. Just like my favorite works. (There can be longer titles that are effective. Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man" are marvelous. Harlan is poetic and a risk taker. Among his works is the ironically titled "A Boy and His Dog." He also has the marvelously titled "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," which is two words and raises questions.

One of my practices of the years has been to collect titles. I love it when words seem to belong together. I love it when they can be taken another way or raise questions. I love words that evoke feelings and images. In many cases, I've carried around a title for years before I understood what the story had to be.

One benefit of a great title is it will capture attention. A handful of powerful words can act like the images advertisers have always looked for, those which would cause you to stop and take a second look.

But for me, as an author, titles do more. They help to provide a focus for the work, if I get them right. In fact, a good test that I don't really grasp what my story is about is when I can't come up with the title that sticks in my mind and feels right.

The worst sin of titling is not paying it off. Wrong title for the genre? You failed. Points to a trivial aspect of the work? No good. Never gets explained or isn't explained satisfactorily? Sorry. You lose.

Never disappoint. Of course, a lot of fulfilling expectations is dependent on the audience for the work. The meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is such an evocative title, is explained within the work and deepens your understanding of the story. However, there is a great meme where a cat is frustrated because he's read the whole book and never gotten clear instructions on how to kill a mockingbird.


Try this at home. Collect a set of titles. (You may want to start with “The Greatest List of 100 Completely Random Movie Titles Ever Compiled in the History of Mankind.”  Creating your own list of twenty titles is a good start. Sort them from best to worst, and see if you can determine why the top ones work well. Then consider the bottom five. Try to create new titles for these. Make these titles consist of three important words each. Make them appropriate for the genre in which you write. (Do any of your retitles grab you? Consider writing the stories they deserve.)

Once you've done this, you might want to flex your muscles by looking at some of your work and see if you can give those stories with weak titles better titles.

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