Trouble with Titles

By John Flynn-York

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A couple days ago, I snuck into an old Automata blog post of mine and changed the title. I don’t know if I improved it. I made it less wordy, certainly—but also more bland. But then, I’ve always had trouble with titles.

Once in a while, I’ve been lucky. A title comes in a flash and feels exactly right, and up it goes at the top of the page in bolded title-case, left-justified (that’s where I let my working titles hang out), and it stays there until the piece is done, then migrates to the center of the page and becomes official. It’s wonderful when this happens, and vanishingly rare.

Most of the time, it’s a challenge to pick a few words that will hang over the top of my writing. So I tend toward on painfully on-the-nose titles, because they’re obvious and (relatively) easy to find. If I write a story about a theater, that story will probably be called “The Theater” for most of its life. And when my titles aren’t blindingly direct, they’re excruciatingly obscure. The theater story might take a cue from the description of a patron’s outfit and wind up with a title like “Houndstooth Overcoat,” even though the overcoat in question, unlike the one in Gogol’s famous story, plays only a minor part, and then people will wonder what significance there is to the overcoat, when really, there isn’t any—it just sounded nice.

My ideal title lies somewhere in between the two poles of “painfully obvious” and “horribly obscure.” It suggests what the work is about without blaring it through a megaphone, it alludes to layers of meaning within the piece, it has maybe a touch of humor or mystery or intrigue to it. Not every title needs to do all this; that’s the goal, but the reality often falls a bit short. No problem: there are numerous stories out there that do just fine with unmemorable titles. Or, to it put another way, if a good story has a bland title, it doesn’t matter—the writing is what makes the story, and if that’s good, it will imbue the title with meaning. But a great title on a not-great story… well, that just seems like a waste.

In any case, say you want to up your story-title game. Here are a few ways to find new possibilities for the name of your work:

1. Brainstorm

That exercise you learned in grade school? Turns out it’s helpful for all kinds of writing-related tasks, and it’s particularly good for coming up with titles. Start from an obvious place—a location, a character’s name, an important object or goal—and free associate. Keep going until you run out of gas, and then look over what you’ve got. The mysterious linkages brainstorming huffs on can often help you hit the sweet spot between obvious and obscure.

2. Explore secondary themes

Instead of trying to capture everything about the story in a word or three, look for something in a subplot, a character’s dialogue, etc. that seems apt. These can, metonymically, sometimes do a better job of representing the whole story than a reference to the main theme. And, anyway, do you really know what your story is about? Probably not… and that’s a good thing. Embrace the off-kilter title, and you might find resonances you didn’t see before.

3. Ask a friend

It can be hard to have enough distance from your own work to see the overall shape of it. Or maybe it’s difficult to slap a label on something that’s taken weeks, months, years of work. Either way, a trusted reader can help. Give it to a friend and ask for suggestions. You might love one of the ideas, or a couple—or you might hate them all, but still get that little spark of inspiration that leads to the right title.

Happy titling!