I agree. I put a lot of time and effort into creating a good title for anything I write. I think if you don't put effort into the title how much effort did you put into the rest of the piece? I also feel like readers appreciate the extra work.
Posts: 72 | Registered: Aug 2007
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I agree with a lot of this, however, I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that a title is a failure if it only makes full sense in retrospect.
Personally, my favorite type of title has the following attributes: -Catchy; rolls off the tongue (nothing like Kiki's Snails Flog Gelatinous Poop) -sets an appropriate mood for the piece (Lord of the Rings; My Sister's Keeper, etc.) -the last part is the trickiest, in my opinion. I love when a title makes sense when you first start reading. However, later in the story, the reader discovers the title actually was referring to something completely different. I love this whenever I've experienced it. (The only example I can think of right now is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
I've long believed a story begins with the first word of the title. While that may seem like a no-brainer in hindsight, it is somewhat disconcerting how many emerging writers' stories I've read that overlooked that vital link with the story. Milieu story, milieu title; Idea story, idea title; Character story, character title; Event story, event title. If the conflict, the first cause, or the inciting moment can be introduced or established in the title, so much the better. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea introduces the conflict. I've wondered for some time and will probably never know with any certainty whether Algis Budry's "The Stoker and the Stars" 1959 title is a pastiche of Hemingway's novel title 1951. They both introduce similar conflicts. Man against nature: character and milieu.
Posts: 3841 | Registered: Jun 2008
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First, I have to say thank you for that compliment about my story title (and the writing behind it, I assure you it's seen several major improvements in revision since you would have read it more than a year ago.
I agree with you that a good story title is important. I laugh, though, because I personally find good story titles difficult to invent. For me, I find I have to let the title come to me rather than me trying to puzzle it out. Sometimes the title comes easily and right away, other times the story has to sit on the shelf for a while with some random title (I have one that has been called Eggplant for the longest time. Really! I finally titled it something better, but still not perfect. Sigh.)
I do think, to further your thinking, that an apt story title is important, particularly in the speculative fiction genre. The title is the beginning of that contract between author and reader, and it's an important start. I think one thing a story title does is it helps identify the sub-genre. Your reasoning on reader behavior is correct at least in my case. I don't read horror, just one of those things. If I got several pages into a story and then figured out it was horror I would be very aggravated indeed.
I do think that story titles that have one meaning at first and another, deeper meaning later or in retrospect are pretty nifty - but I think that most story titles don't accomplish this, nor is there a need for them to. I get aggravated with authors trying to be too smarty-pants in this regard.
(edited to remove a story title)
[This message has been edited by KayTi (edited August 25, 2008).]
See, doesn't it just evoke ... errr...nothing?
Yeah, that's why I hope for one of those intuitive leaps/sparks for story titles. It's the only hope.
But meanwhile, in case you were wondering, cooking is one of my hobbies, and thus I usually mention food in my stories - as I'm always wondering how people go about their daily lives in these far-off futures or manned spaceflight environments that are the typical sci-fi fare. Now that I write, I get to put it all in there. Atmosphere. Yep.
Titles are very important, I think. Its the first thing you, as a reader, sees. Be it on the book shelf, or at the top of a document your friend sends you. When I get people to crit my work, I ask them to comment on the title. Have changed the titles of 2 novels because the original one was lame. MUCH better the second time around.
Where a flashy title will help its the prose and plot that carry the day, and Robert Heinlein proves my point. It is popular opinion that he wrote the best short story in Sci-Fi history with...
All you Zombies
The story had nothing to do with zombies at all but is instead about time travel. I hate the title and would have advised him to change it. Of course, most of my titles are either puns or have a double meaning. I've learned that turns some people off, but others do like it. That's my two cents for the day.
Lisa Scottoline does this with some of her newer books. The titles have a fairly obvious association and then a second meaning when you go through the story. Two of her latest books that did it were "Dirty Blonde" and "Lady Killer." It wasn't until after I finished the novels that the second (or in the case of Lady Killer) third meanings were apparent. While her "Vendetta Defense" didn't have any "hidden" meanings that I could see, it did tell me exactly what I was in for - legal thriller where the "killer" has some justification for the actions taken.
Other good titles:
"Jury Master" - Robert Dugoni
"In her Defense" - Stephen Horn
Any quesses what theses were about?
I do like titles that tell me something about the story. I agree that a good title can replace a lot of text.
I like titles that have multiple meanings---there's an old story called "Sound Decision," that, if I remember right, had three different meanings.
Right now I have an unfinished story on my hands titled "Plant Girl," which I stuck on to have something to identify it with, but didn't intend keeping because it seemed so cliche and stale---but, so far, has acquired two different meanings. I'd still like to change it, but I'm afraid I may be stuck with it.
Of course, as writers, if we're lucky, we'll encounter a species called editors, who'll see fit to change the titles as they see fit, no matter what kind of fits we throw.
I'm reminded of a story involving Theodore Sturgeon and the publisher Ian Ballantine. Sturgeon wrote a classic novel for Ballantine, More Than Human---but wanted to name the novel "Baby Is Three," the original title of one segment of it. Reportedly, they argued back and forth about it, Sturgeon holding his ground, until Ballantine finally said, "I'm going to name it More Than Human or I'll kill you."
Most title changes won't be that intense...but keep it in mind...
[edited to correct some italicism problems]
[This message has been edited by Robert Nowall (edited August 25, 2008).]
A title is important in catching a reader's attention (As in: Reader opens magazine or walks into bookstore, peruses stories by title, picks up titles that sound interesting to them, opens the book to read the blurb or the first few paragraphs, puts back or buys book.), but the story should NEVER have to rely on it for clarity.
From the viewpoint of a slush editor: If your story can't stand on its own without the title to 'explain' something about it, then you haven't done your job.
I read quite a lot of slush stories. I read more than 50 last week. I very rarely pay much attention to the titles. The story has to draw me in and explain itself in the first couple of paragraphs, sans title.
If I could pick and choose the slush I decided to read, I'd probably pay more attention to title. And I would be disappointed if the title misled--as in Heinlein's example. But it's the writing that'll get the story/book sold and seen and bought.
If you have a way cool title, please make sure the story lives up to it.
I remember being sent a story to critique (early on, so it was years ago) that had a title so intriguing I was excited to read the story. And I ended up very disappointed. (And probably gave a harsher critique than I should have because of my disappointment.)
I used to pull colorful titles from my vast library---I'd take a book, stick my finger in at random pages, and write down what they landed on. I got bunches of great titles that way, and some I came up with stories for.
One downside is that I wind up haunted by titles, without stories attached. For, my God, for twenty-five-some years now, I've been bothered by the title "The Peace of Two Islands." I could never get past the middle of an opening scene, and I've tried a dozen times or more over the years.