Titles are the most important half dozen words in a piece of fiction. However, the right title can be nightmarishly hard to hunt down, and matters for more reasons than most people think.
A non-fiction title is relatively easy. The potential readers are a select audience, interested mainly in an accurate summary of the article. As a result, a title is often no more complicated than “Setting Up Bluetooth Speakers” or “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” Sometimes, though, I pun shamelessly — more because I can than for any valid reason. For instance, in writing about Gaël Duval’s eelo project (now /e/) to produce a free-licensed phone, I couldn’t resist “You say goodbye, and I say eelo.”
However, in fiction the stakes are higher. Probably, you won’t want to pun, except perhaps when doing humor. More often, an effective fiction title is like a good blurb: it should intrigue a reader and summarize the story without giving too much away. For me, the titles in Tolkien’s trilogy cover the full range of effectiveness: The Fellowship of the Ring intrigues, The Two Towers is neutral, and The Return of the King gives away a key plot point.
But how to find a title? That is the hard part. Ideally, you want a phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Unfortunately, though, that is a painstaking business. Too frequently, I need several dozen attempts, and even then I may not find a suitable title. The trouble is that I first have to decide what the main themes are — which, like most authors, I struggle with — and then have to find a way to express it in a few words. Personally, I’d rather write a Spencerian sonnet.
In desperation, I may turn to collections of quotations. Shakespeare has been largely mined out, so much so that the more famous passages can sound like a library catalog. I, for one, am unable to hear or read Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy without envisioning a stack of unmemorable Penguin mysteries from the 1930s. However, there are countless other writers whose quotes you can borrow. All you have to do is to scan a list until you find one that suggests one of the themes of your work.
Sometimes, too, you can echo a quote, changing it just enough to be intriguing. For instance, when I published my master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber, I knew that the academic title would never do. No one is going to stop to read the title, much less pick up “Divination and Self-Therapy:” Archetype and Stereotype in the Works of Fritz Leiber.” Instead, after countless self-starts, I remembered that Leiber had memorized most of Macbeth while playing in his parents’ theatrical company. Coming to the “dagger of the mind” passage, I finally found something with which I could work. The thesis was about the Anima, the female aspect of a man in Jungian psychology, which often gets tangled with the Shadow, or sinister aspect. With all this in mind, I settled on Witches of the Mind, which, to those who know the original passage, suggests that Leiber’s depiction of women was all about male perception, not actual women.
Similar twistings of familar phrases are especially common when a movie becomes popular. For instance, shortly after the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there were all sorts of plays upon its title.
Other times, a phrase within the work may provide the title. I avoid a phrase from the start or the end of the story, which when combined with the title can sound repetitious. For the same reason, I avoid chapter titles, if I am using them. I also suggest not using invented characters or place name, although many writers do. But that still leaves thousands of words to choose from. In my current work in progress, my critiquing partner Jessica suggested The Bone Ransom, highlighting an important piece of background detail. I admit that I had invented the bone ransom for some creepy atmosphere, but as soon as I heard the suggestion, I knew that I was unlikely to find another title half so intriguing.
No matter which method of finding a title you choose, it’s always wise to check the title before using it, especially if it’s only one or two words, and is therefore likely to have been already used. For instance, I thought I had a wonderful title in Sister Assassin, but, unfortunately it’s been used. I might have used it anyway, but I prefer for my titles to be unique. But even if a title is unique, it can never hurt to field-test it among friends or a Facebook writing group. You are unlikely to have a consensus, but if most of the respondents approve the title, and the negatives are minor, or for trivial reasons, you can adopt the title with some confidence.
The Reason Why
Asked why a title matters, many writers say that it is meant to catch a potential reader’s attention. With any luck, seeing the title will make people stop to read the blurb or maybe the first few pages. And if you are self-publishing that may be reason enough to labor over the title.
However, if you aiming for traditional publishing, it is not readers whose attention you are trying to attract: it’s agents or editors. This difference matters because the title you’ve labored over stands a good chance of being changed on the way to publication, sometimes for a sensible reason. For instance, your perfect title may have “blood” or “dark” in it, at a time when many other submissions have as well. In such a case, changing your title might keep your work from being lost in the crowd. For this reason, in traditional publishing, your working title becomes a way to prove your competence to agents and editors.
Titles may come at any point in a story, ranging from before you start to the completion of the final draft. I was lucky with an unfinished story called “Grendel Night,” but often, I can’t settle on the title until the very end, simply because until I finish, I don’t know what the story is about.
Yet whenever possible, I try to have a working title as early as possible. Why? Because the title works on you as a writer as much as it does on a potential reader. A well-chosen title is a way of thinking of your story as a whole, a kind of mental shortcut that makes thinking about the story easier. Moreover, the title can be a guideline for the direction of the story, or at least for revisions. For example, when I settled on The Bone Ransom, I immediately understood what parts I needed to emphasize in the next draft, and what I needed to add.
In this way, your title can help you as much as it does potential readers or editors. The influence of a title can be as much artistic as commercial — and either means the time devoted to finding the right one is justified.