A few quick-ish and not-so-dirty tips for short stories, fanfictions, and other needs that suit your fancy
The eternal struggle of writers… now that I’ve written it, how do I come up with a title?
I’ve been writing and titling for over a decade, so I’m going to share my tips and tricks for title-coming-up-with.
Disclaimer: I am specifying this guide as for short stories (although this would apply to fanfiction too) because I do not have significant experience in titling novels (or screenplays or poetry or essays). My understanding from reading on the subject is that titling for novels has more pieces in play, such as genre-branding. Additionally, if you go through traditional publishing your much-sweated-over title could be changed along the way from industry and marketing people anyway.
Disclaimer disclaimer: I’m not saying these tips won’t be helpful -- in some measure -- in titling over things. I have used some of these titling methods for library programming, so there’s that.
Tip 1 - The Scan and Rip
Scan over your story and note any interesting word combos or turns of phrase, and rip it right on out of the text for your title.
My stories ‘Another Life,’ ‘Pit-Stop Existence,’ and ‘Castles at Night’ had their titles taken from the text of the story.
The benefit of this is you get to pull off that Hollywood ‘title drop’ in your story, even though the title drop has in fact been reversed engineered.
Another benefit is the title is in your own words, because you wrote it, and is likely to fit the theme and style and feel of your story.
The caveat to this is that it is possible to discover an interesting turn of phrase in your story that just does not work as a title for your story as a whole. Maybe it thematically implies a completely different tone or genre. Maybe it just does not work or mean the same thing out of context.
Maybe you can’t find any interesting turns of phrase in your story, and you weep at the genericness of your prose all night. No judgement.
Remember -- interesting word combos or turns of phrase. Not generic ones.
Tip 2 - The Brainstorm Explosion
Ever do brainstorming exercises in elementary or middle school where you were supposed to very quickly just come up with and write down ideas? Yeah, this is the idea here. Brainstorm free writing of potential titles.
Either type (if you type fast) or hand write. I’ve done both with success just depending on what I had available or where I had been working at the moment.
What you need to do is push aside all that perfectionism and anxiety about a getting a good title and just write down every title that comes to mind. Stupid titles. Generic titles. Titles that are already taken but would’ve worked so good if you had just gotten to it first. Variations on titles. Minute variations on titles. Minute like dropped and added articles, plurals, or changed tenses. Just all of the titles.
Man, I think I delete (when typed) or discard (when handwritten) my title brainstorming, so I can’t show you my process. I have not only used this to title short stories, but also to title a new re-ocurring library program I started at my job.
Listen, free writing and brainstorming are good ways to get past your internal editor that swats down ideas before you can even get them on to paper. Get them on to paper. Get the creative juices flowing. You will be surprised what you can come up with when you just let yourself.
After you’re done brainstorming, review for potential contenders. Although, honestly, in my experience, when you hit on a title that’s the right fit for your story, you just know it.
Tip 3 - One Word Titles are Dangerous
This is a cautionary tale. At one point, when you are struggling to derive a title for your masterpiece, you might think, “Stringing multiple words together is hard, so if I just choose one word for my title that will be easy.”
Woah, boy. Hold your horses.
Coordinating a lot of people to move a piano is difficult, yes. But imagine having to lift that piano all by yourself ... Is this metaphor making sense?
When you have a one word title, that title has to do a lot of heavy lifting.
And there is a lot of no-gos in the world of one word titles. No vague, broad words that label emotions or abstract concepts: Love, Death, Hope, Sadness, etc. No words that you can reasonably assume are overused or may be just as vague in implication because that have obvious symbolic value: Ashes, Night, etc.
A title should be specific to a story, but a one word title should be even more specific.
‘Seeds’ is the title of my Hades and Persephone retelling. If you aren’t familiar with this Greek myth, Pomegranate seeds play a major and myth-defining role.
Another one word titled short story I have is ‘Renaissance.’ As the story is about a character’s sort of ‘rebirth’ this thematically fits the story. Also, there are several artist characters in the story, so it doubly plays on that word in terms of its artistic connotations. ‘Renaissance’ is also a more particular, less common word than ‘Rebirth’ which is also too on the nose.
Interestingly, originally the story was titled ‘The Renaissance’ but the article at the beginning was eventually cut in one of the drafting stages, and I think it is a stronger title for it. (Nevermind that ‘the renaissance’ refers to a historical period.)
The takeaway lesson here is (and please, please take away something) is that if you go with a one word title, the word has to be specific and particular to the story in question, even more so than a multi word title has to be.
Tip 4 - Steal. *Cough* I mean, Reference.
Or as references are sometimes called in the literary world, use ‘allusions.’
You don’t want to use whole cart another title, or trademark, or catchphrase… However, there is a long history of titles being references to or lines from other pieces of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare have been been pulled from a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner are titles taken from Shakespeare’s works. A Time to Kill by John Grisham and Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson are titles taken from the Bible. I hope you can see from the variety of types of books hear how allusion-titles can work for a variety of stories.
So, basically, this is the same advice as tip numero uno except instead of finding interesting turns of phrase from your own prose, you are finding it from someone else.
But your options aren’t limited to just literature. Consider idioms and localisms, or nonfiction quotes.
The reference does not have to be whole cart either. You can twist it, play with it, manipulate it, subvert it in a whole lot of ways to make it a better fit for your story. You might notice that a lot of comical television shows have episode titles that are plays on references or titles to other things. The Simpsons and Psych are two shows that do this that instantly (and without having to do any research) come to my mind.
For example, one of my working titles for a short story of mine was “Through the Aquarium Glass” which was a play on “Through the Looking Glass” (aka, the Alice in Wonderland sequel). The cadence of phrase would (hopefully) be familiar to the audience even if they did not immediately recognize it, and I also hoped (for those who did recognize it) it imparted the feeling of madness that was a theme running through both tales.
Tip 5 - Don’t Be Afraid of Long Titles
This is the opposite side of the coin of the other advice, tip3. Here I am telling you to channel your inner Fall Out Boy, and no be afraid of giving a story a longer or more wordy title.
I think people tend towards shorter, few word titles. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you can’t quiet come up with one that works, that is original and isn’t generic, well, open yourself up to longer.
One my most successful original short stories is titled ‘The Pawnshop of Intangible Things.’ It is only five words (It was six until I found out pawnshop is one word and not two), but it quite a mouthful of syllables. Any shorter version of the title like ‘The Pawnshop’ or ‘Intangible Things’ would not have as strongly conveyed what the story was about or its genre: a piece of Twilight Zone-y magical realism. ‘The Pawnshop’ could be any number of things set in a pawnshop. ‘Intangible Things’ sounds like a poem or piece of lyrical literary fiction. Having those two together, boom.
Conversational-style long titles is subgenre of the long title. This means words that you can imagine coming out of someone’s mouth. A little wordy but real. Not overly rot or poetic.
One story of mine I could just not come up with a title. I scanned and no turns off phrase seemed to hit the mark of what the story was as a larger entity. It was ultimately a story about characters heavily involved in toxic and unhealthy coping behaviors, so what came to mind was ‘everything wrong with me, and then some.’ This is ultimately what I went with because I wanted to post the story and was tired of waiting for a better title to come to mind. This will segue into my next tip momentarily...
The benefit of long titles is that they are more likely to be original than short titles because more words equals more variables, and more variables is more potential variety.
Tip 6 - Sometimes good enough is good enough.
A Meh Title is Better than No Title
No one wants to read your story called ‘Untitled,’ not even your mom. (Okay, maybe your mom.)
At the end of the day, you need to title your story if you plan on sharing it with the world in any which way. Literary magazines want your story to have a title. Agents and editors and publishers want your story to have a title even if they might change it down the line. Think you’re home free if you’re just writing something to post online for free perusal (whether fanfiction or original fiction)... There is plenty of stuff online to read for free. You need to distinguish your story.
You know what ‘Untitled’ looks like to a reader? That this author didn’t even care enough or put enough effort in to come up with a title. Why should I, the reader, care enough to give this story a shot?
A title is part of the polish and presentation, like proofreading and good formatting. Maybe you have a brilliant story, put if it is in one stream of consciousness-like blob instead of in paragraphs I ain’t reading it. Lack of titles causes the similar effect when I’m browsing a fanfiction website. I don’t even give that story a time of day, because if there is no title I don’t trust that the author put even passing time and care into the writing itself. Is that being unfair? Well, I don’t care.
If I’m done convincing you the importance of titles (and if you are reading this you probably already agree so… ) then time to get to the point.
Maybe you can’t find a title you love. A title that’s dazzling and original. A title that perfectly encapsulates the tone and theme of the story as well as hooking readers.
Sometimes -- or even most of the time -- that’s okay. Push over your perfectionist self. Sucker punch your internal editor. Perfection is impossible. Artistic endeavors have subjective standards. You are your hardest critic and need to get over yourself.
Use various tactics, like the tips above, to create a list of potential titles, and then pick the one that is good enough. After a few… days, weeks, months, etc... of caling and thinking of the story by that title it might very well grow on you.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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