The Title of a novel or short story might seem like the first thing a writer thinks about before launching into the actual writing. Sometimes a title pops into the writer’s head before even a plot is considered. It’s happened to me many times. I have a file called Bits and Pieces with random titles and snatches of plots in it. Sometimes they’re written on a scrap of paper and stuffed in the folder because the idea caught my fancy with nothing more than a sentence stating what I thought that title might mean or the story behind it might be about. And once in a while it’s just the title.
Here’s an example of what I mean: After Christmas several years ago I was looking through the half-priced ornaments on sale at a local hardware store and found one in the shape of a dragon no more than three inches tall. He was rubbery, not made of glass, but he was kind of cute, and so I bought him and took him home. Then on a walk one day around the same time, I found a small, sparkly thing on the ground. It was probably for a girl’s ponytail, but I picked it up and brought it home, too. I’m into miniatures and doll houses and to me the sparkly thing looked like a Christmas wreath. Not knowing what to do with it, I spotted the dragon and slipped it around his neck. Now the dragon looked very Christmassy.
I took him upstairs and set him on the roof of the Christmas castle I had built years ago and even wrote a story about called Bearnard’s Christmas. Looking at the little guy there on the roof, I said to myself: “every castle needs a dragon.” The phrase stayed in my head until I wrote it down and put it in that Bits and Pieces folder. A few years later I wrote the third of my Christmas stories with that as the title and the dragon as the main character.
But a title and a main character aren’t all there is to a story. I had to come up with a plot that incorporated those two pieces, but that’s what writers do. Or at least what we try to do. In my case I had to think about what a dragon might do up at the North Pole since this was to be a Christmas story. I decided to have someone leave a large egg in Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve and he has to figure out what to do with it when it hatches and turns into that little dragon. Wizards, magic powders, and a big Polar bear add to the mix. But there was a dilemma: I had to give the dragon some kind of special quality.
But, hey, I am a writer. I write books. I know folks who write books. We really want people, children and adults, to READ. We really are worried that the country is forgetting the value of books, so what better thing for this little guy to do than to “light the fire of imagination” under kids to get them to read when Santa leaves books under the tree on Christmas Eve.
So now I had my story and it all came from a title that popped into my head after finding that very special little dragon.
But not every time do titles and the story click. You might have a great title in your head or in that folder of ideas and you start writing. As often happens, your story takes a detour to a new and exciting place. All of a sudden your story has a life of its own, but now your great title doesn’t fit. But you love the title. Do you keep it anyway?
Of course you do, but for another book or story. The title will wait until you find it a home somewhere else.
So what should a Title do? There are many possibilities.
- The Title can set the stage, in other words, suggest the Genre or Tone of the work. It can tell the prospective reader if the book is Hardboiled Noir or a Romance novel. A book with the title A Killer Among Us won’t be confused with a romance novel that would more likely have a title like Passion in the Gazebo. The book title American Caesar sitting in the History section will attract history buffs. If it were in the Children’s section, it would be totally out of place. If it landed in the Cooking section by mistake readers might think it’s a salad dressing. So a title needs to fit its genre (and its spot on the shelf at the bookstore.)
- The Title can hint at the outcome. After all, the title Gone with the Wind certainly says something about what happened to the Old South after the Civil War. Fahrenheit 451 is an integral part of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale about a future where books are being confiscated and burned. The temperature in the title is the temperature at which books burn. Sometimes these types of titles pop into a writer’s head as he is writing. Or maybe a character says something in the heat of the moment and you realize that is what your story is about and it would make a terrific title. Your characters can sometimes have a mind of their own. So listen to what they say. (I’m quite serious here, in a literary sense, of course.)
- Perhaps the Title will introduce the main character and the continued use of that name will help carry on the series. How many Nancy Drew books have been written that now feature her name above the title? The Chronicles of Narnia use that main title to introduce each subsequent edition. If you are planning to do a series of books utilizing the same main character, you might want to use the character’s name in each of your titles so the reader can locate them on the shelf at the bookstore or find them easily on Amazon. My Chance McCoy short stories use “Chance” in every title. For example: Second Chance (both the collection’s title and one of the stories), “Ghost of a Chance,” “Chance Encounter,” and “Chance of a Lifetime.” Those are just a few of the titles so far. I have a file full of “Chance” titles waiting for a story to go along with it.
- The Title can also be a Goal or Destination. When you start writing a story you should have just such an objective in mind. The main characters and/or the villain might want something. Take Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Everybody was looking for that black bird. Or maybe the goal is to Kill Bill which is the title of the popular movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title was definitely the objective. And remember, other than wanting to get back to Kansas, Dorothy, with the help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, were all looking for The Wizard of Oz.
- Of course there is always the title that tells you Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury used that exact title for one of his stories. You might want to have your title suggest something looming over the horizon. I utilize that strategy in the titles of a few of my darker short stories: “Shoot Me and Set Me Free,” “A Role to Die For,” “You Can Only Die Twice.”
- Titles can also multitask. My short story “Bloodlust” obviously tells you something unpleasant is lurking within those pages. The title actually captures several points in that single word. First, the title definitely sets the Tone or Genre of the piece. This is obviously not a cozy. And a single word like that acts as a Grabber because it doesn’t need modifiers to get to the point. The title can also Hook the reader with a compelling reason to keep reading, if they are into the darker side of mysteries. But then I do follow up with a dead body at both the beginning and end of the story. That ties the entire thing up in a nice red ribbon.
- Make sure your title pays off in the end. Somewhere in all those words that follow the title should have some relevance to the plot or the point to your story. To see if it does, write a blurb for your story. This can be no longer than the sentence or two like the write-up you see in the TV Guide that describes an upcoming movie. Check those out every time you watch a movie and see how you can boil down your story to a few well-written lines. For my Johnny Casino Series I use the general title and volume number first. Example: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1. But each of the books in the three-book series has its own defining name added. For instance, the first book is called: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect. The short blurb for the book is: “Johnny Casino is a retired P.I. with a past. He just hopes it doesn’t catch up with him.” My Gin Caulfield mystery series doesn’t happen to use her name in the title of each book. I didn’t know it was going to be a three-book series when I started writing the first book. But take the title of the second book in the series: Hedge Bet. The blurb reads as follows: “Is it a bet on the ponies or a high stakes gamble in the stock market that leads to a death at the racetrack and the return of Ginger Caulfield to her former profession as private investigator?” Whether one is gambling in the stock market or at the racetrack, the title is about betting.
- Other than “How To” books in the Self-Help section, loooong titles can be difficult. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a long title, but it also hints at being slightly funny or at least sarcastic. A long title can be ponderous, pretentious, and maybe even off-putting. Always consider what you are selling and who your audience is.
- Dynamic and memorable titles are often short and pithy. A one word title can speak volumes if it’s the right word. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Bram Stoker’s Stephen King’s It. or Orwell’s 1984. I have one book called Caverns. It’s about caverns being carved out by large rats under Chicago. The skyline photo of Chicago on the cover also has a rat in the foreground. Here’s where one word and a cover to match go hand in hand.
Of course there are exceptions to rules, but it never hurts to really think about your title to make sure it fits what you are trying to say within those pages.
Now let’s think about what a Title should Not do? There are a few things in this category.
- Don’t promise more than you can deliver. The title Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex better be one heck of a comprehensive book or Book One of a twelve volume series. You might be better off calling it Sex for Dummies.
- Don’t promise something and deliver something else. If your title is Roses and Pussycats and it turns out to be a slasher story, you will probably end up with a disgruntled reader. Or if the title is Killer Bees and there are no bees, again your readers will walk away dissatisfied. You will leave them wondering if you knew what you were talking about or worse; they might think they were too dense to understand your brilliant prose. You can bet they won’t be back for a second helping.
- Don’t be “Too Clever by Half.” That old saying means don’t try to be ultra clever in your title because your reader might not understand your joke, point, or subtle pun. Take the title: “A Dyspeptic View of Murder.” I made it up. I have no idea what it means other than you might get an upset stomach somewhere along the line. But it could also mean the reader won’t buy your book because they have no idea what it would be about.
Something you might want to do, especially if you have beta readers. Those are folks who will read your final draft before publication. These can be friends, relations, or just a bunch of readers who will give you their two cents on your book. Take their advice with a grain of salt, but do listen. Sometimes they see something or misunderstand something that the majority of your readers might also misunderstand. But while they are giving you a few comments about your book, ask them if the title works. Since they just read the book, they might have some good thoughts on that very subject.
Here is something else to ponder or at least be aware of. Often one’s publisher has other ideas about your title. You might think it’s the best title ever. And it might be. But your publisher has the last word. Suck it up and let them have their way as painful as that may be. If you ever get dropped by your publisher or leave on your own, get back your publishing rights and re-publish it yourself under the title you had originally wanted.
There was a time during the last century when ladies’ magazines and other monthly publications printed short stories. Often these stories were turned into movies. Occasionally the title would be changed when it hit the big screen. “Madman’s Holiday” changed to Crack-Up. This was done to attract a certain kind of audience. It not only fit the era, the 1940s when Noir was hitting its stride, but it looked better on the marquee. Your title should first and foremost grab your audience.
Titles can change if others get a say in the publication; that’s the biz, but as a writer you want to be the first to crown your work with a fitting identity. It also reassures you that you know what your story is about in a few brief words. And it tells the reader what’s in store for them.
Something else that goes hand-in-hand with that all important Title is the Cover. It should also say something about what’s inside. When you are strolling down those bookstore aisles, glance at the covers. What do they tell you? Puppies and cartoon characters might work well in the children’s section; dark and ominous is what crime and murder is all about. A cute and cozy cover might also be about murder and mayhem, but most, if not all of the violence, is off the page. The title can be cute and cozy, too, with maybe an axe sticking out of the knitting basket.
But again, if you have a stubborn publisher who wants another cover than what you had visualized, hopefully your title will capture the reader’s interest.
Think about your audience and what they expect from the genre writing you are doing. Wander through a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at book covers in the area in which you want to write. What do their titles tell you about what’s inside? Read the blurb on the back of the book and see if the title fits those few very important words.
Remember this: Often the book is not facing out on the bookshelf in the bookstore, so that title should say a lot. Make it sing.