Short story titles are important. They are the sizzle that sell your story. While novels have back cover copy and reviews to help sell them, short stories have only the title to grab a reader’s attention.
Take a moment to picture a reader flipping through an anthology. They’re looking at the table of contents, scanning the titles. If they’ve never heard of you, the title really has to intrigue them and pull them in.
So how are you feeling, now? Horrified, because you consider yourself terrible at titles? Excited by the challenge? Somewhere in between?
Well, I have some tools that will help you think about titles the same way you think about any other aspect of the writing craft: as something you can work at, and improve on.
Watching Someone Else Improve
I began working on this after reading a passage in Tobias S. Buckell’s new writing handbook It’s All Just A Draft.
Buckell dissects some short story titles and talks about what they achieved. He said he made a short list of other people’s titles and categorized them, an exercise that helped him get much better at writing titles, himself.
This exercise, he said, took him from the so-so title of his very excellent early short story “The Fish Merchant”, to the later title, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”.
I think we can all agree that is a much more compelling title! It calls back to other famous books and titles plays with them by making it clear that this story is in a new setting. It makes me want to read that story. Both stories are speculative fiction, but I bet you couldn’t have guessed that from both titles.
What Titles Do
Titles do lots of things.
- Sometimes they’re just phrases or quotes that set a mood for a story;
- Sometimes they’re descriptions of what people are doing in the story.
- Sometimes they can be about the theme of the story.
- They might just be a name of a character and an action.
- And they might just be a description of the main thing that’s happening the story or a facet of the story.
- The title might be just an interesting made-up word or name.
- The title might intrigue a reader with an implied double meaning.
What We Learn From Published Stories
Seeing what Tobias S. Buckell had learned from his study of a few short story titles, I decided to give it a try.
I pulled a bunch of short story collections off my shelf. Not to be outdone by Mr. Buckell, I wrote down the titles of almost five hundred short stories (while recovering from a fractured right pinkie, so my hand is still a little sore! But I process information better when I hand-write.)
3 Things You’ll Want To Know
- I have a little gift for you, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
- Plus I have some tips on how you can rescue your own titles.
- But first, here’s what I discovered other writers are doing with their titles.
Who Is Writing The Best Titles? (It’s Not Who You Might Think)
I noticed a huge difference between the literary stories that came from the Best American Short Story collections, and titles that sat atop science fiction stories, mystery stories, horror stories, and romance stories. Genre authors seem to understand that the title is the advert for your story. Literary writers, not so much.
There are some good literary titles in my collections. But the literary fiction anthologies also housed the largest percentage of deadly-boring titles. (Maybe literary writers can count on people reading their work simply because it’s in a Best Of collection? Maybe I just don’t like them as much. That’s always a possibility too!)
I identified 11 different styles of titles. I’m sure there are more, or that you might come up with your own categories, but here’s my overview of what each type of title does or doesn’t achieve, from a reader’s point of view.
Labels, Not Titles
The worst style of title (in my opinion, by which I mean “made me least likely to read the story”) tended to be what I call ‘Label’ titles. Things like (and these are all real titles of published stories):
This isn’t intriguing. This is just a label that tells you about something that’s in the story.
The literary story collections were rife with this kind of thing. Labels.
The stories might be fantastic, but the titles did nothing to encourage me to choose to read them.
You can almost get away with labeling your story, if you add an adjective.
“Christina The Astonishing”
Can you see how these are much more intriguing?
(New Bees? What’s new about them? Are they robot bees? Is this a story of ecological disaster-reversal? A story about handwriting? I might at least read enough to find out.)
Catching The Voice Of The Story
I’ll read any story if the voice is one I like. That’s why a crazy-long title like this works for me:
“The Great Interruption: The Story of a Story of Old Port William, and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935 to 1978)
The title is very, very specific and long winded and expresses a lot about what’s going to be in the story, the era, the voice, the generation of the person telling it.
Contrast this with the title of another story about storytelling: “The Art of The Story”. (Yawn!)
Playing With Other People’s Words
Titles that pulled me in often took a quote or a line from a poem and either used them wholesale, or changed them up a little.
“The Brothers Brujo” (perhaps playing off The Brothers Kharamatzov?)
“The Race Goes To The Swiftest”
“2 B R 0 2 B” (read the 0 as ‘naught’!)
“To Kiss In The Shadows”
I’m a sucker for a pun so I wanted to read these stories just to reward the writer for making me smile (or groan).
“Readers of the Lost Art”
“Pirates of Penance”
These work because they make the reader pause for a moment. It might be a juxtaposition of two seemingly-at-odds concepts or it might be an interesting combinations of names
“Rhoda and Wolf”
“The Devil In the Barn”
“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky”
Sometimes it can be powerful to use a title that is less-introguing at first, but that has extra resonance after you’ve read the story.
“A History of China” turned out not to be about the country, but about one family’s plates and the events that are happening in their lives at various points.
And I remember it.
Cultural or Geographical Rooting
I mentioned “The Great Interruption”, above. That told us exactly where and when the story was taking place. But you can also use cultural items to give people an idea of what kind of setting the story is going to have.
“Joloff Rice and Revolution”
“Blueprints for St. Louis”
The mystery writers were really good at this. Think about these titles for mystery stories and see what they’re doing. Sometimes this lets them get away with a ‘label’ title, becuase the reader is primed to look for the double-meaning, based on the genre.
Playing With The Reader’s Expectations
This works particularly well with genre stories. As in the example above, you can use the reader’s expectations to allow them to fill in some of the ideas themseelves. See what you think of these title/genre combinations:
“Sharing Air” – Science Fiction
“Before I Wake” – Science Fiction
“Surface Tension” – Science Fiction
“The Absence of Emily” – Mystery
“Nice Girls Don’t Ride” – Romance
You can also go against the reader’s expectations and surprise them with a title that sounds like it has nothing to do with the genre.
“Rachel In Love” – Science Fiction
“A Coon Dog and Love” – Mystery
“Her Enemy” – Romance
Ripped From The Headlines
Using hot-button contemporary topics can make the reader pause long enough to engage emotionally with your title (whether they are for or against the issue). Here were some intriguing titles I found in this category:
Sensitivity Training – mystery
Safe Space – literary
A Resource for You
I typed up my list of 500 titles and I’m making it available to you. I suggest you look through the list without any judgment and simply note which of these titles makes you want to read the story.
(I haven’t put the author’s names on them so that you’re not biased by knowing that you love the author’s work.)
Go through the list, print it out and highlight things; scribble on the page; try to figure out what each of these titles does (or doesn’t do) for you.
- Is it just a label?
- Is it a quote from something?
- Is it expressing something in the theme of the story?
- Is it a clever, intriguing, weird word or name or juxtaposition of names or ideas?
- Is it playing to your expectations or against them?
Note down how you react to the titles.
And then start thinking about how you can apply this to your own writing.
Exercises for Rescuing Your Titles
- If you’re tempted to label your story, at least add an adjective (e.g. “A Journey” vs. “An Unexpected Journey”)
- If you must label your story with a single word, at least use unusual words that are fun to say (“Goombahs”, “Gorgonoids”, “Protozoa”, “Omakase”) rather than ones that aren’t (“Dentists”, “Hair”)
- Take a common phrase and change it slightly (“The Guided Tour” is boring, but “The Gilded Tour” makes me pause and wonder…)
- Use puns. Steal from common phrases, titles, lyrics and change them up.
- Use a phrase that embodies the voice of your narrator or character. (“So, The Cold War’s Over…”)
- Play with or against the type of your genre. (“Shared Air”, “Deadbeat”)
- Combine unusual words, names or concepts (“Control Negro”, “Warrior Jesus”)
- Don’t be afraid to be weird. Or long. (“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made Of Meat”, “The Secret Lives Of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”)
- Dig around in the midpoint of your story and see if there is a phrase right there, that exemplifies the theme of your story. Maybe that’s your title.
As with everything else in writing, we can’t simply wring our hands and say ‘I’m no good at that part’. We must work on improving our craft. I hope this exercise gives you a handle on what titles are supposed to do, how you can make sure yours sing, and how you might have a little fun along the way.
DISCUSSION: Do titles come easily to you, or do you struggle with them? Will you use any of these techniques to title (or re-title) a story? Would you be willing to share the changes you made? What issues did I miss, when thinking about titles? Leave a comment!