Writer reflects on the importance of titles
Some nice titles there, Lev. The one you mentioned from Raymond Carver, which is also the title of one of his short story collections, is one of my favorites. On the other hand, I’ve read some beautiful personal essays with very simple titles. Alex R. Jones had one in The Threepenny Review last year called “Dancing.”
For humorous stories, I like to try play(s) on words. "Heavily Ever After," about a man on his honeymoon who escapes into overeating when his new wife begins flirting with another resort guest; "The Call of the Wool," in which a couple's use of pet names gets out of hand; and "Dead Men Get No Tail," in which a private eye gets involved in a family squabble about a deceased man's "essence" stored in a sperm bank.
I'm betting I'm not alone in that I have various and sundry possible titles written down here and there. Sometimes I even do write a story for one. One I've been trying to complete for years now is "When Pushkin Came to Shovkin" but nothing to show for it yet.
I suck at titles and often bend to the suggestions of my editors. I don't think they're all that important to me, but I recognize people struggle over them. I think at least a third of everything I've ever been lucky enough to find a home for was sent under three or four title possibilities and in a good portion of those the editor or publisher decided. Really, a lot of the titles I've come up with are pretty stupid.
I also really struggle with titles. Thanks so much for sharing how you've managed this in the past.
I've sometimes had luck with Hemingway's approach: brainstorming. Supposedly, he would write long lists of possible titles (50 ideas or more). I found that after the first few or ten I'm forced to think in a different way. Once, for a flash fiction, I was able to discover a better title and went from "Fire in the Barn" (ug, yes) to "Everyone Has Their Own Shangri-la." Better?
Like you I often find titles to my work (poetry) once I feel the writing has expressed my intent. Then, as I search for a title, I usually keep only a few guidelines in mind.
First of all I never title any piece based on the first line (and usually the first stanza) as it’s similar to giving away the plot line of a story. There’s nothing for the reader to anticipate, leaving the remainder a denouement.
I also don’t prefer the central theme, image or character as the title simply because it’s too readily apparent (and sometimes boring).
What I do look for is a phrase or word tucked within which can exemplify the theme or attitude. Once in a while I will even use a phrase based on a pun or derivative of the theme to put my point across as I once did in a poem concerning an insufferable narcissist. I titled it Altar Ego both to bow to its subject’s hunger for continual praise and idolization and to accentuate the rather Jekyll and Hyde facets of his personality.
Becky, what a great post--such useful information on title creation, which has always been one of my struggles. I love how you take us through the process for your essay.
I am loving this article. It is very timely for me. Just last week I decided that I was going to name each of my Substack articles after the title of a song. Your article gives me a few more things to consider.
The Great Gatsby. The Portrait of a Lady. The Age of Innocence. Middlemarch. Sense and Sensibility. Tom Jones. The Incredible Lightness of Being. 5 words seems to be the general cut-off for books that have become classics.
What a great story and how cool about PBS!!
P.S.--Becky came up with the title for this piece! :-)
I love your tone, Lev -- so smooth and assured. I recently searched for a title for a poetry collection. I tried finding a line from the poems but didn't land on one that truly resonated. So, I looked through SPD's (Small Press Distribution) catalog to see current titles -- not to copy any of them but to get a sense of what's out there. The search helped me eliminate many of the titles I had been considering -- also an important step in settling on the right title.
Thank you, Lev, for this column. Great tips for figuring out a title. Plus, I’ve always wondered about the purpose of strike-throughs!
Mostly my titles come to me naturally and feel right. To me the primary importance is they match the vibe of the piece and invite the audience to imagine what the story or experience is going to be like.
I actually am quite fond of using typographical hijinks like strikethroughs too. I have a short film called "Sometimes a Figure Grabs Me by the Wrist W̶h̶i̶l̶e̶ ̶I̶ ̶S̶l̶e̶e̶p̶" for instance. It felt too icky without 'while I sleep' but it's also about sleep paralysis which feels wakeful, so the contrast is in the strikethrough.
Another short was operating under the working title "After the Strϕke" for a while because it was about a lightning strike / a brain stroke but I removed almost all of the stroke-related material from the edit so the risk of it being read str-phi-ke became less worth taking.
What about long titles?
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being
Is there such a thing as too long?