Naming the Baby: Titles (Part II of II) Bruce Holland Rogers
This is the third column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. The first column, and the entirety of his Short-Short Sighted columns (dedicated to writing very short fiction), visit his author page.
In part one of this article, Bruce explained some theory and then wrote: The title pulls the reader in. Then the story delivers on the title. This column goes from theory to practice.
Enough theory. What a writer lacking a title can really use is some Things to Try. Here are a few.
1. Look at your bookshelf. What are the patterns of the titles you see there? From where I’m writing this, I can see The Road to Gandolfo; Nip, Tuck, Dead; Shore Leave; The Dark Queen; Before Women Had Wings; Picturing the Wreck; Charity Ends At Home and Six to Break Even. Applying these patterns to a story that I’m writing about a perfumer named Olivia, I come up with these titles: The Formulary for Hollywood; Spritz, Sniff, Punch; Sniff Test; The Blood Perfume; Before Olivia Was Somebody; Punching the Diva; Celebrity Breeds Contempt and… Well, I can’t come up for anything at all for that last one. Not every pattern will be useful, and the pattern itself probably won’t survive this brainstorming process. But the patterns force my hand, make me think of words I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I like the word formulary. I like the dramatic action of punch. Some of these titles are giving away more of the story or theme than I want to telegraph. My favorite is “The Blood Perfume,” which is an unexpected combination that refers to something in the story and perhaps provides a nice parallel to the idea of blood money. That fits the action of the story. I would take out the article: “Blood Perfume.”
2. Scour poetic texts, starting with poems but also considering the plays of Shakespeare, books of the Bible or other scripture, the text of well-known speeches. In each of these, the language is compressed and full of symbol, metaphor, and simile. If the text is well-known, then you might use it to obliquely title your story. For example, Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Metaphors,” is a widely reprinted poem about pregnancy. Ray Vukcevich and I were looking for a title for our collaborative story about pregnancy, and we turned to this poem for ideas. The most obvious metaphor, which we also liked, was “A Riddle in Nine Syllables,” but we searched for other uses of this title and found that three story writers had already used it. There’s no copyright on titles. We could have given our story the same name. But we turned to another line of the poem and called our story “The Train There’s No Getting Off.”
Some well-known poems have been raided many times for titles. Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” has yielded World Enough and Time, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” “Our Vegetable Love,” “Time’s Winged Chariot,” and A Fine and Private Place, with variations such as World Enough and Space-time, Worlds Enough and Time, “Vegetable Love,” and Fine and Private Place. Every time I re-read the poem, I see promising phrases that are begging for the right story: “Deserts of Eternity,” “Till the Conversion of the Jews,” “Thy Marble Vault,” “Amorous Birds of Prey,” “The Iron Gates of Life,” “Yet We Will Make Him Run.”
When I use a well-known poem, one that appears in most university survey textbooks, for example, I expect many readers to recognize the poem that I’m borrowing from and to think of my title in relation to the poem. However, I also look for titles in the lines of contemporary poets. Few readers will know these sources, so I can’t count on anyone making a connection. In such cases, I choose a phrase from the poem because the image or language are arresting and suit the story. My story title “These Shoes Strangers Have Died Of” is borrowed from Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, one of the better-known poetry books of the last half century, but still not likely to be recognized. Sadly.
3. Search the story for a title you wrote down without knowing it. Is there a line of dialog that sums up the central concern of the story? Is there a central metaphor in the story? These things make good titles, especially if the utterance or metaphor is something you want to call the reader’s attention to.
4. Consider the main situation or problem of the story. Can you come up with an oxymoron or some other image that suggests some sort of appropriate conflict or contradiction? Here’s one off the top of my head: “Barefoot in Ski Boots.” There’s a contrast between a foot that is bare and vulnerable and a foot in the stiffest, most armored footwear most of us will ever try on, but in addition to the contrast, there is the apparent impossibility of both at once. This title is intriguing, and if it will seem meaningful or symbolic after reading the story, it will seem apt. (But readers had better be able to figure out why this is an apt symbol!)
5. Play with familiar phrases by substituting with one surprising word. You Only Live Twice, A Hearse of a Different Color, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Monticello.
6. If the story is about one central character and that character has an interesting name, the character’s name may be all the title you need. But if the name alone isn’t enough, consider adding an attribute, as in The Talented Mr. Ripley. If the story’s setting has an interesting name, and if the setting is central to the story, then you might name the story with the setting, or at least including the setting. Cold Mountain, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Out of Africa. One of these days, I want to write a story set in Rifle Gap just so I can use the name as a title.
7. Try the sound effects of poetry such as alliteration, assonance or rhyme. I see rhymes often in song titles: “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” “Advance Romance,” “I Can’t Drive Fifty-five.” Sleepless in Seattle alliterates.
8. Consider whether the title can contribute something to the structure of the story. For instance, there are some poems that have lead-in titles where the title is treated as the first words of the poem. A story called “The First Commandment” could begin “…was the only commandment that Clarence failed to keep. He had no trouble honoring his parents, shunning false idols, or keeping the sabbath holy. But he had spent his whole life so far killing, and he didn’t see how he could stop now, even though he knew he should.”
But the title can also provide all sorts of symmetry with the ending of a story. For example, my story “The Dead Boy at Your Window” is written almost entirely in the third person. The story only refers to you in the title and in the very last line. Putting you in the title helps me to prepare the reader for that intimate shift in the last line. If you want something tricky to happen in the last line of the story, perhaps you can prepare the reader for this in the title.
9. Steal a title. If your story deals with the same thematic material as a famous story, or if your story is in some way an argument against that other story, consider appropriating the title. There is no copyright on titles. If you call a story or a novel The Dead, a great many readers will be thinking of the James Joyce story of the same title when they read your work. Of course, you are inviting an unflattering comparison if your story isn’t up to the comparison. And if you lift a title that is more idiosyncratic, such as The Last Picture Show, many readers will think you’re unimaginative or a copycat or a cheat. Stealing a title, or even using one by mistake when someone else has already attached it to a different work, certainly has drawbacks. But there may be stories for which it’s the right move.
10. Perhaps all you need is the right word. One-word titles will work well if they name a topic that is both central to the story and suggests strong emotion or drama. My students have recently published stories called “Jitters” (Kim Lundstrom) and “Buccaneers” (Stefanie Freele).
11. Finally, get into the habit of just noticing good titles and considering why they make you want to read further. Sometimes you won’t be able to say why a title is good, but just appreciating good titles will make you better at coming up with your own. David Wagoner’s poems are nearly always brilliant: “My Mother’s Nightmare,” “Disorderly Conduct,” “The Stone Dreamer,” “The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934.” That last one is a good example of a title that is arresting for being so long. Usually, short titles are best, but a longer title can be memorable or amusing simply because it is so long. The poet James Wright made such titles one of his signatures, is in the well-known “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Such titles aren’t limited to poetry. “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” is a Joyce Carol Oates story, and I love the title of a movie I have never seen: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Don’t you want to know what that’s about? And the meter and rhyme help to make the title memorable so you can pass it on to your friends even at fifteen words.
That last consideration — whether readers can remember and say your title to others — should be a filter through which all prospective titles must pass. Are there any words in the title that readers won’t know how to pronounce? If so, then even if they read a positive review of the book, how will they remember a title they can’t say? How will they ask for it in the book store?
It’s useful, too, to think about how memory works. Sounds help us to remember, and so does image. The concrete is better than the abstract. You’d think that a phrase in common usage would be easy to remember as a title, but I know moviegoers who have seen Something’s Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets, and Nothing In Common, along with similarly named films, and have trouble matching the title to the movie. Familiar though these phrases may be, the abstractions don’t provide much glue for sticking the title to the remembered scenes. It’s much easier to attach a nice concrete title such as Steel Magnolias to remembered characters or scenes.
Hollywood usually gets titles right, and even titles on various “worst movie title” lists are actually pretty good. But even Hollywood gets it wrong now and then, and so will you. At the very least, every writer should be able to come up with better titles than the first one that came to mind, and every once in a while, we can hope to come up with a title that will be on everyone’s lips.
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