John Joseph Adams recently published an article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling,” in the SFWA Bulletin.
As someone who hates coming up with titles, I was excited to see what he had to say. So I thought I’d write up some impressions on his article which I’m illustrating with some examples from my own work.
Titles That Come From the Text
John starts the article by noting several titles that he suggested to authors that he’s published in his magazines and anthologies. He discovered these titles “right there in the text of the stories themselves. When I’m reading or editing a story, I frequently highlight evocative phrases I come across that I can later suggest to the author as a possible alternate title. Sometimes the phrasing isn’t quite right for the title, but it’s something that can be massaged, or combined together with another phrase from elsewhere in the story, that somehow captures the essence of what the story is about.”
I used to do the large majority of my titling this way until I started my MFA program at Mills, where the teacher told me what John Joseph Adams brings up next: “I should note that some writing professors—including notable literary giants—advise against this practice, largely because, they say, doing this puts too much emphasis and meaning on the eponymous phrase when the reader comes across it in the story.” I actually wonder whether I’m the one who called this to his attention — we were on a panel about titles together a few years ago, and I brought that up.
As John points out in the article, whether or not this works is a case-by-case thing. In general, I think I’m happier if the phrase would be marked anyway — for instance, if it’s part of a lyric one of the characters sings, or the title of a movie that exists in the text. (My story “The Sea of Trees” refers to a commonly used poetic name for the setting.) John brings up a short story that uses its last line, but I’d argue that’s a phrase that would be marked anyway.
A few years ago, I published a story called “Beyond the Naked Eye” in anthology of John’s, Oz Reimagined. That’s a phrase that appears in the story a number of times; seeing what’s beyond the naked eye is one of the character’s obsessions. Because of that, it’s already marked. Also, I like the title because it also implies there are things beyond the naked eye going on in the story in more than the literal sense.
Sometimes, you can pull a phrase out for the title, and then change the text of the story so that it’s no longer exactly the same. One of my recent stories is called “Love Is Never Still” — that’s not a line I used in any of the poetic sequences, but it could have been, and I could have changed the text later.
And I don’t mean to suggest the technique never works without any of those tricks. I’m sure it does, with finesse and luck. You just need to find a phrase or sentence that can bear the weight of also being a title without becoming a sledgehammer. Finding the right balance can be tricky.
That said, this really is the easiest way to come up with titles. And it’s nice when you’re stuck coming up with something, because it gives you clear steps for proceeding.
Short Can be Good
John brings up the title of Chuck Pahlaniuk’s horror story “Guts” as an example of short titles that work really well. In this case, “Guts” creates a sense of foreboding, building tension before the story even begins.
I really, really like one word titles. I feel like a single word can be sort of delicious to imagine. That sounds kind of absract and new agey, but I mean it literally. When I think of the word “Dust” — when I just let it settle in my head — it has a whole rich dimensions of sensory associations. “Dust” is a word that seems like it should settle, silent and alone, without a lot of fanfare or accompaniment.
But it’s not a great short story title. It is, in fact, first on the list of most common short story titles that were submitted to Clarkesworld (as of when they last ran statistics). Use the title “Dust” and, like a grain of dust, it becomes an anonymous one of many.
One-word titles are probably my weakness. My preference for them is not echoed by most people, especially most writers and publishers at the moment (at least in short stories). I also sometimes use them when I’m lazy and can’t think of what else to do. As a consequence, I have a number of them, especially recently. I hope some are in “Guts” territory, but probably some of them are more like “Dust.”
Looking at the two I published most recently:
“Endless” — I suspect this of being a Dust-like title. It refers to something that is endless, but doesn’t do a lot of work with mood or extra dimension. It rests on the hope that the word is intriguing. (Also, “The End” turns up as one of the 7th most common Clarkeworld titles, although hopefully “EndLESS” would be a little less ubiquitous.)
“Tender” — Hopefully this is more like “Guts.” The story is painful, and the title suggests what follows.
Some of my others: Decomposition, Memorium, Exodus, Extremes, Heartstrung, Silence, Skyscrapers. I continue to believe that “Decomposition” was the correct title for that story, and “Heartstrung” worked well. The others were probably lazy.
From John’s article: “If your story deals with a particular field, with its own unique terminology, you can also mine that for story titles.”
This is one of my favorite techniques. It’s usually specific and evocative, if you find the right way to do it. Like reading through your story to find a title already in it, this technique also gives you some clear directions on how to proceed when you’re stuck. I usually look up online glossaries.
My preference is to find terminology that will work on two levels, e.g. “Grand Jete” — both the leap in ballet, and a reference to the leap into death.
John again: “You can also title your story by referencing another work, or borrowing an evocative phrase that is applicable to your own story.”
I do this, but have started doing it less, and making sure what I’m referencing is older. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a reference to a contemporary Israeli poem, and I probably wouldn’t use it now for that reason. Whereas “What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” is a riff on William Carlos Williams, and “Between Dragons and Their Wrath” references Shakespeare.
John adds that, “You can even “borrow” more directly and just reuse an exact title another author has already used,” and then lists several examples. That works if you have a particular fictional conversation you readers to be thinking of, I guess, but it seems to me like it’s a specialized use.
Also, the Clarkesworld List
I found the Clarkesworld list really interesting, and I think I’ll look at it in another post.
I use several techniques John doesn’t list here. Most of us probably have our own idiosyncratic strategies. I liked the article, especially its practical approach.
The real question is: what should I have titled this essay?