I will be the first to admit that I am absolutely terrible at titling my short stories. I’m a little better at titling a novel, but it generally causes me the kind of angst that I can only liken to naming a child. (And my eldest has told me that we chose the wrong name for her, that clearly we should have gone with Ella instead.) To confuse things further, I like to save my work under one title on my computer, and then refer to the story as something else entirely. My novel Since God Was A Boy is saved under my computer as Apple Juice. Don’t ask—I don’t fully understand it myself.
There seem to be several schools of thought about titling your work. Some people don’t write a word until they have a title. I recently interviewed a writer who said he has to have a title in place before he starts writing because the title serves as an anchor for the story. Other writers wait to title a piece until it’s finished, the idea being your title is the final touch, the icing on the cake, so to speak.
I think that both of these approaches work, and that they actually have a common link, which is that a good title usually has a thematic element and serves as a touchstone for both writer and reader.
So here are a few thoughts on titles:
They should be easy to remember. I have stopped recommending The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to people because I can never remember the title. Even in the writing of this blog post I had to look it up. I predict most people call it “that literary sweet potato book.” The Southern author Walker Percy said this about titles: “A good title should be like a metaphor. It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.”
A title shouldn’t be so vague that there are already 500 books out there with the same title. I think this is a common problem with mass-market mystery novels. Titles such as The Forgotten, The Innocent, The Enemy, etc. don’t actually tell you anything about the work. If I have one quibble with Alice Munro (I feel guilty even writing this) it would be that the short stories in her collection Runaway have rather vague titles, and I always have to refer to my copy to remember them. That being said, I have never pulled out Runaway without re-reading and marveling at the stories and Munro’s command of language, vague titles or not.
The point of view of your work can guide your title. If your title utilizes the third person but your story is in the first person, your title is probably off. I’ve been reading Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End, which is written in the collective “we” so the title and the POV have a thematic resonance.
The working title for my second person story was originally “That guy,” which is a laughably bad title. And somehow in the revision process, it was changed to “You, The Ex and the Neighbor,” which allowed the title and POV to complement each other instead of competing.
Your title shouldn’t be so esoteric it needs excessive explanations. It’s a nice feeling when you get to a point in a short story or novel and you realize how the title fits in; it’s almost like fitting together the last piece of a puzzle. There is a small satisfaction on the part of the reader when he realizes why the title was chosen. But if your early readers tell you they’re confused by the title, you should probably change it. Especially if it’s based off a bizarre toast you overheard. Or needs an in-depth explanation similar to explaining the crisis in the Middle East.
Use your first and last sentences as a guide for a title. When I was an MFA student at Spalding, Robin Lippincott gave a great lecture on titling your work. In his lecture he looked at the first and last sentences of several stories and pointed out that there is often a connection between the titles and these sentences. I recently read Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, which you could call a collection of linked short stories or a novel told in an unusual structure, but whatever you call it, it’s a haunting and brilliant story, spanning five generations of women, from the end of the nineteenth century to modern day.
This is the last sentence, (also from the perspective of the daughter whose mom starved herself): “I climb into bed with her, into that place where she is and if I get caught, if I am found here, I am sorry, I will tell them: There is nowhere else to be.”
These two sentences nicely bookend each other but they also elevate the title and open it up to various interpretations.
And finally, Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of my short stories that was recently accepted for publication has cycled through four titles including “His Sweaters,” “Peter,” “35 and Still Alive,” and “How These Things Start,” which is the title it’s going to be published under. Guess which of those titles is the only one I didn’t come up with myself? (It’s also the only one that works on a thematic level.) If you’re still not convinced you need writer friends to read your work, you have not been paying attention, my dears.