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. [Read more…]