28 February 2011 ~ 13 Comments

Title Crafting

written by David Steffen

One of the aspects of the craft writing that never seems to get much discussion is the choice of title.  Now, certainly there are lots of other things you need to work on, endings, the beginning hook, characterization, so on.  And those other things are more likely to affect your chances at making a sale.  But titles do matter.  At the very least they can be the icing on the cake.  At the most they can make the story itself more memorable and thus easier to recommend and discuss (always an important thing).  Their value is less obvious and harder to measure.

So, here’s a list of factors when choosing a great title.  I’ll give at least one good and bad examples for each.  Keep in mind that I’m only commenting on the choice of title, not the story itself.  And I’m certainly not proud of every title I’ve created for my own stories.  Note, I do also include some movies and video games in these entries, because titles are equally important in those media.

Factors for a Great Title

1.  Is it compelling?

When you hear the best titles, they just make you WANT to read the story, even without knowing anything else about them.  A story needs to draw you in, but even before you read the opening paragraph, you’re going to see the title in the table of contents of the magazine, or on the spine of the book at a bookstore.

Good:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michael Gondry
Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, written by Lewis Carroll

Bad:
Prey, written by Michael Crichton
This is a stock title that doesn’t really tell you anything interesting about the story, a tale of self-modifying nanobot swarms escaped from laboratories.  It doesn’t help that a video game came out within a couple years of this with the same title but having no relation whatsoever to the Crichton book, about a Native American alien abductee trying to fight his way off the spacecraft.
The Bride of Frankenstein, written by Mike Resnick
There have been so many Frankenstein’s monster media tie-ins over the years that mentioning “Frankenstein” in the title actually lowers my interest a bit, unless something about it would imply that the setting or details were wildly different than the original.  Which this title doesn’t.
The Old Man and the Sea, written by Ernest Hemingway
The title is certainly accurate, but it really does not make me want to read the story.

2.  Is it memorable?

When a story really becomes popular, much of the reason for its popularity are word-of-mouth recommendations.  To really allow word-of-mouth to do have its full effect, the title needs to be memorable.  If you think of the storyline then the title should spring to mind.

Good:  The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, written by Ted Chiang
The Tell-Tale Heart, written by by Edgar Allen Poe

Bad:  The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Diplomat, written by Matthew Sanborn Smith
This is a great, hilarious story.  But I have a bugger of a time remembering the title because the story doesn’t call this title to mind at all.

3.  Is it evocative?

The memory association between title and story is a two way street.  If you hear the title, the story should spring to mind.  It helps to avoid cliched phrases, because they already have existing associations.  But new variations of cliched phrases can make very evocative titles.  Again, this can be very important to promote discussion.  If someone asks you if you’ve read Book X, if the title evokes nothing for you there’s less chance of a real discussion happening.

Good:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis
Deus Ex (PC Game), produced by Eidos
This is an example of a common phrase being expressed in a new way.  This is part of the phrase “deus ex machina”, literally “god from a machine”, usually used to refer to a last-minute savior that solves an apparently unsolvable problem.   The protagonist of this game is a deus ex machina in this sense, but he is also nano-augmented, essentially gaining godlike powers through technology, making him a sort of god from a machine.    Truncating the original phrase makes it more distinct, and more brief, packing a lot of meaning into just six letters.

Bad:  The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater, written by Robert T. Jeschonek
The word “bear” is certainly relevant to the story, but the sweater has no real importance.  So when I hear this title it leads my associative memory down roads that don’t relate to this story.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight, written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This title is just lazy.  It tells you that there are dragons in the book, but it’s part of a series called Dragonlance so that is hardly a surprise.

4.  Does it match the tone of the story?

Generally, it’s a good idea to have the tone of the title match the tone of the story.  A humorous title hints at a humorous story; a dark title hints at a dark story, etc…
There are definitely exceptions to this one.  For instance, S. Boyd Taylor’s “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties.”  The title is light and childish, but that’s a very dark one.  But in that story the mismatch is clearly an intentionally contrasting choice and does well as a title.

Good:  Just a Couple of Highly Experimental Weapons Tucked Away Behind the Toilet Paper, written by Adam Troy Castro
Extremely long titles tend to give a humorous slant.  Funny story, funny title here.
What They Consumed, written by Helmut Finch
Dark story, dark title.

Bad:  Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves

5.  Does it keep its promise?

A title shouldn’t write a check that its story can’t cash.

Good:  Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, written by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Philosophy on a blimp with a character sharing the name of the author in a parallel universe.  It matches the title quite well.
Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag, directed by Tom Schulman
I haven’t actually seen this movie, but according to synopses there is actually a duffelbag full of heads.  With a title like that, you’ve gotta follow through.
Snakes on a Plane, directed by David R. Ellis
This one’s a late entry to the list, suggested by Marshal.  But it was such a good example I couldn’t pass it up.

Bad:  Evil Robot Monkey, written by Mary Robinette Kowal
For obvious reasons I began reading this  story anticipating an evil robot monkey.  The story contained no evil, no robot, and no monkey.  It’s not that the story was bad, but with that title, anything that didn’t actually fulfill the title is bound to disappoint.
Let Us All Praise Awesome Dinosaurs, written by Leonard Richardson
This story did not make me want to praise dinosaurs, nor did anyone in the story praise any dinosaurs.  There were at least dinosaurs in it, though, so it gets partial credit.

6.  Is it related to the story’s kernel?

Ideally, a title will relate to the core idea, the kernel, the theme of the story.

Good:  Friction, written by Will McIntosh
Friction is the number one concern of the protagonist, and is the motivation behind most of his life’s decisions, as well as being a major factor in the climax and the resolution.
The Matrix, directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Bad:  The Gathering Storm, written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
This does relate to the events of the book as the series approaches its resolution, presumably centered around the Last Battle.  The storm does relate to that but is by no means the kernel of this particular book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, written by Stieg Larson
The girl does indeed have a dragon tattoo.  It’s an interesting detail that certainly helps contribute to characterization and gives her an unmistakable feature.  But it has pretty much nothing to do with the story’s kernel.

7.  Is the meaning of the title clear?

Good:  Cursed, written by Jeremy C. Shipp
We know from right at the beginning that the protagonist is cursed, and his biggest desire is to remove that curse.
City of Golden Shadow, written by Tad Williams
Again, the primary motivating factor is right in the title.
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, written by Terry Pratchett

Bad:  Knife of Dreams, written by Robert Jordan
Based on a quote also written by the author.  The trouble is that I never remember the meaning of the quote and it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything.  Not only that, but some of the other titles refer to specific objects, such as “Crown of Swords”, and this sounds like another one of those.  Add to that the fact that the World of Dreams is a major setting in the series, and it seems pretty clear that this is a magical object.  So I kept waiting for that darned knife to show up.
More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand, written by Rosamund Hudge
I looked this up after listening to the story, it’s pulled from a Yeats poem about Fae changelings.  Knowing that, it certainly relates, but that only helps if you know the Yeats quote.  That’s the trouble making titles based on quotes, they’re generally only meaningful if you know the quote.  I kept waiting for it to make sense while I was reading, and then it never did.
Perilous Seas by Dave Duncan
Much of his Man of His Word series takes place crossing from country to country by ocean.  The seas are perilous from time to time, but no more so in this book than the others.  All four titles of this series were taken from a passage from The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam, and seemingly plucked phrases at random from it, though none of them were particularly good titles, with two of them seeming to be entirely unrelated to their book.

What goes around

As I said before a bad title doesn’t mean it’s a bad story and probably doesn’t have much to do with editorial selection.  Lest anyone complain about me picking on other writers’ titles, I’ll pick on my own a bit as well.

To date I’ve seen four of my stories published, so I’ll comment on them here for each of the categories I’ve listed.  I would comment on others, but I enter some contests like Writers of the Future where anonymity of stories is mandatory, so I don’t want to risk losing eligibility on those stories.  I’ll give each of them a score from 1-10, 10 being the highest, 1 being lowest, 5 being average.

The Disconnected

An SF story set in a future where phone dependence has grown to such a degree that everyone is attached to phone symbiotes after being born.  This story centers around those who have been disconnected from their phones (once disconnected you cannot be reconnected).

1.  Compelling?  6
2.  Memorable?  6
Funny story:  I set up a Google Alert search for this story, and for months I kept getting hits that said “Jesus Loves the Disconnected”.  Good to know that he’s a fan.
3.  Evocative?  3
“Disconnected” is simply too common a word to be extremely evocative.
4.  Tone?  4
Story is darker than the title.
5.  Keeps promise?  N/A
It doesn’t really promise anything with the title
6.  Story kernel?  10
7.  Clear meaning?  10

The Utility of Love

A horror retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It begins with Dorothy’s house landing in Munchkinland, but the Tin Man here is very different than the original book’s version, truly compassionless.

1.  Compelling?  10
2.  Memorable? 10
3.  Evocative?  10
4.  Tone?  7

The cold, calculating of “utility” matches well the Tin Man’s cold manner of thinking.  But Dorothy would likely not agree that the tone is right.
5.  Keeps its promise?  N/A
Doesn’t really promise anything with the title.
6.  Story Kernel?  10
7.  Clear meaning?  10

What Makes You Tick

A flash story about an  alien autopsy from the point of view of the alien.

1.  Compelling?  2
It’s too cliched a phrase to be terribly compelling.
2.  Memorable?  5
I think the meaning is clear, so hopefully the title is at least somewhat memorable.
3.  Evocative?  1
Again, cliched phrases do not work well for this aspect.  There are too many associations for the phrase already.
4.  Tone?  10
5.  Keeps its promise?  N/A
Doesn’t really promise anything with the title.
6.  Story Kernel?  7
It’s definitely centered around the story kernel but I’m not sure how clear that association is.
7.  Clear meaning?  8

Turning Back the Clock

A man comes home to find his wife killed by robbers.  He has an hour to cross the Time Zone boundary and literally turn back time to prevent her death.

1.  Compelling?  1
Way too cliched to be compelling.
2.  Memorable? 9
3.  Evocative?  1
Again, way too cliched.
4.  Tone?  2
The tone doesn’t do much to convey the sense of urgency.
5.  Keeps its promise?  7
6.
Story Kernel?  10
The title is the protagonist’s driving motivation.
7. Clear meaning?  10

13 Responses to “Title Crafting”

  1. Marshal 28 February 2011 at 12:13 pm Permalink

    For #5 rule (Does it keep its promise?), I thought for sure you were going to use “Snakes on a Plane”.

  2. David Steffen 28 February 2011 at 12:49 pm Permalink

    Marshal–
    Great example, how did I miss that one? Well I added it into the article as a late entry. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. Jaye Moretz 28 February 2011 at 5:26 pm Permalink

    I’m glad to see someong paying attention to titles. To me, titles are even more important than you indicate. I used to sit in editorial meetings for a small press mag I worked on, and everyone was impressed by a good title. We discussed whether titles would make a potential reader pick it up and keep reading, whether it related to the story, and how well it was reflected in the story. Generic titles like “The Wall” or “The Mirror” disouraged us; we got at least 3 of those a day. Harlan Ellison style titles always got attention. My philosophy is, your title is like your first meeting for a job you really want, or with your fiance’s parents. You want to make a good impression, be memorable, and make the other person want to see more of what you have to offer. What good is writing the best story of the year, if the title bores or turns off so many readers, no one bothers to turn the page?

  4. Cora 28 February 2011 at 10:32 pm Permalink

    Regarding “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the original Swedish title of the novel was “Men Who Hate Women”, which IMO is a lot more appropriate to the novel and the series as a whole than the English titles. Though the English titles are at least memorable, whereas in Germany the three Stieg Larsson books all have interchangeable one word titles such as Forgiveness, Condemnation and so on. It’s even worse in German, because the words all sound similar.

  5. David Steffen 1 March 2011 at 12:28 am Permalink

    Jaye–Thanks for commenting. I hadn’t realized that titles counted for much in the actual reading of stories. Good to know. And, yes, Harlan Ellison has some great titles, some that I should have put on the list, like “I have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. I haven’t read that story, but every time I hear the title I really want to.

  6. David Steffen 1 March 2011 at 12:29 am Permalink

    Cora–no kidding? I hadn’t heard what the original title was. That’s certainly more appropriate to the story. The English title is memorable but not very descriptive of the content.

  7. Girl Friday 2 March 2011 at 6:15 am Permalink

    Brilliant article, and came at just the right time for me as am stuck trying to figure out a title, thanks! And I agree with most of your choices – I remember enjoying Cloverfield but thinking the title was incredibly meh. One of my favourite titles recently was ‘The Carnival of Lost Souls’ (a children’s book) – instantly made me want to pick it up.

  8. oneminutegalactica 2 March 2011 at 3:29 pm Permalink

    Just wanted to ask if you know of any place to read the “Loneliness of the Long Distance Diplomat” story online. I found it at Starship Sofa, but I’ve never been the type who can listen to a story or book on audio. I just enjoy reading them a lot more.

  9. David Steffen 3 March 2011 at 11:17 am Permalink

    oneminutegalactica–
    You’re in luck! I found a link to what appears to be a text version of the story. I don’t know if it’s the exact same version I heard on StarShipSofa but at a glance it looks the same. I really got a kick out of this story:

    http://bbtmagazine.presspublisher.us/issue/issue_four-june_july_2009/article/the_loneliness_of_the_long_distance_diplomat_06-3

  10. Millenium_King 8 March 2011 at 2:19 am Permalink

    Hey glad you liked “What they Consumed!”

    I liked “The Utility of Love” re: title crafting, but if I had a criticism of it, that would be that the Wizard of Oz connection is not apparent.

    Finally, I just got _The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010_ edited by Paula A. Guran and one of the stories was “In the Porches of my Ears” by Norman Prentiss. A good story, but the title had nothing to do with it. Turns out it was from some line from Hamlet. Pretentious and stupid.

    A good title was “Certain Death for a Known Person” by Steve Duffy. Great story too.

  11. Robert forrester 6 April 2011 at 3:56 pm Permalink

    Brilliant article, and so much thanks for posting it. I always struggle with titles and never seem to give them any thought until the story’s done and all my enthusiasm is directed at my next project. And yet I completely agree, titles are by far the most underrated aspects of a good story, which is why your seven aspects to a good title has now been printed and slapped on my wall, but I would add another:

    –your title should not ruin the ending or mystery of a story.

    I’ve picked myself up on that a few times–If I had written the film the ‘Usual Suspects’ I’d have probably named it: ‘The Man with the Limp’

  12. David Steffen 7 April 2011 at 9:55 am Permalink

    Robert–
    I’m glad the list could be of use to you! I like your suggested addition as well. That’s especially true of stories that depend on a twist for their value–if the twist is given away in the title then it robs the twist of its power.


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